At the start of Mike Bartlett’s Albion, a shadowy figure dressed in an army uniform wanders around a garden. It is some time before we discover who he is and why he is there, and this is appropriate to many of the other characters in this play who, despite reasonably privileged lives, seem a little lost. The play was originally staged at the Almeida in 2017 in the wake of Brexit and was revived in February this year when it was filmed; it now appears as part of the BBC’s Culture In Quarantine strand. It is both a domestic family drama and a wider parable about the state of the nation. If anything, the resonances in the play have grown and strengthened over the intervening period as countrywide divisions have hardened and become entrenched for some while others have been left floundering in a world they no longer recognise.
If such uncertainties affect some of the characters, this cannot, apparently, be said of central figure Audrey Walters. Decamping from the town to the country long before it became a pandemic escape, she has insisted on buying Albion House and, more importantly, the land that goes with it. She intends to restore it to its glory days of the post First World War world when its gardens were universally celebrated.
Audrey lives in her own personal post war world as she has recently lost a cherished son in a bomb attack while fighting overseas. She sees her work as a tribute to his memory as well as an homage to a time when Britain still insisted on using the preface Great. She is dragging her somewhat reluctant family (husband Paul and daughter Zara) and others of her circle (her dead son’s fiancée Anna and best friend Katherine) in her wake. Not content with controlling her immediate circle, having arrived in a small country village she immediately sets about disrupting the local social structures. It is not long before the anticipated idyll starts to become a nightmare. Audrey essentially creates her own dilemmas and seems more in tune with the ghosts of the past than the living of the present.
Bartlett’s nearly three-hour play unfolds in largely leisurely fashion as the four scenes traverse the seasons. As directed by Rupert Goold it exudes a Chekhovian air of increasing disillusion and regret which doesn’t make it an easy watch but pays dividends if you stick with it as the multiple layers are exposed. Goold has a first-rate cast at his disposal, none more so than Victoria Hamilton in a (possibly) career best as Audrey. Somewhat reminiscent of the mother (played by Diana Rigg) in Humble Boy, Hamilton’s certainty in her “rightness” about everything gradually falls apart leaving her as exposed as everyone else. The actor’s use of her steely gaze and cleverly timed pauses enhance the character as written, marking the role out as one of significance in modern day drama.
Daughter Zara (Daisy Edgar-Jones) shows the same spark of determination but it wasn’t clear whether her infatuation with her mother’s best friend was genuine or a plea to get herself noticed. I didn’t find Angel Coulby as the grieving Anna particularly engaging at first but as the play progressed, I felt the actor found depths within the role which at first were only hinted at. Helen Schlesinger as author Katherine is the only one to stand up to Audrey and is virtually banished for her pains.
The gripping scenes between Schlesinger and Hamilton also serve as the centre of the political debate at the heart of the play. The men fare less well with Nicholas Rowe’s Paul seemingly content to drift along while Audrey makes the decisions. Rowe has a nice line in deadpan humour, but after a while I found his character irritating; Audrey’s instruction to him to “man up” seemed entirely pertinent. Donal Finn was somewhat one dimensional as young window cleaner/gardener/erstwhile writer Gabriel though he did a nice line in smitten country swain. Nigel Bett’s nice next-door neighbour Edward was just that – nice. The aging couple played by Margot Leicester and Geoffrey Freshwater were very much in the Chekov mould, but I couldn’t help feeling that the writing surrounding them was a tad patronising and that their lives were regarded as rather secondary to the main action. Edyta Budnik as Polish cleaner Kristina is there to make a thematic point rather than be a character, but she does this with brisk efficiency and an outlook which isn’t infected by “Britishness”.
The design elements of Miriam Buether (design), Neil Austin (lighting) and Gregory Clarke (sound) showed a team who were clearly in tune with one another and had worked together to create something uniformly pleasing. The Almeida stage looked a picture and the changing seasons in the garden were captured with a high level of detail. The almost ritualised reconfiguring of the landscape between scenes was beautifully done and showed how the various characters had all contributed to the outcome. There was a particularly strong climax to the first half when the direction and design brought a decided lump to the throat.
Albion has been an award winner and its not difficult to see why. It’s the type of play we might have expected from David Hare in his heyday and the sort of thing that has been absent from our stage/screen for too long. Whichever side of the Brexit debate you were on, you will find much to make you think about and reflect upon. While I would recommend the production, judicious use of the pruning shears might have made it even better.