The title of the new Mike Bartlett/Rupert Goold collaboration at the Almeida Theatre (until 24 November) tells you everything. “Albion” is, after all, just another name for this island, Great Britain, from the ancient Greek Ἀλβιών. Like, Charles III, the last project written by Bartlett and directed by Goold, Albion is a state-of-the-nation play. This time, however, the conceit is not the court or government as a metaphor for society; the ruling trope is the survival and renovation of a country house garden in Oxfordshire. There is a debt to Chekhov, to be sure, though by the time Albion begins, the cherry orchard would have been bought and sold at least three times.
Miriam Buether’s designs reconfigure the auditorium so that the audience sits around three sides of one of the 31 “rooms” of the garden. This is called the “Red Garden,” not for the roses and geraniums that are planted as we watch – in a superb, balletic coup de théâtre (movement director, Rebecca Frecknall) – but to honour the blood sacrifices of World War I. Neil Austin’s first-rate lighting and Gregory Clark’s sound designs achieve amazing effects of severely changing weather in this miniature space.
Audrey Walters has bought the historic garden and the attached seven-bedroom/four-bathroom house in Oxfordshire, where she stayed as a child when it belonged to her uncle, Stanley Upthorne. Victoria Hamilton plays her so beautifully that, though you learn quickly that this quick-to-decide, 55-year-old woman is capable also of sentimentality, of deceit and of hiding things from herself, you are still a little surprised to learn, well over half an hour into the play, that she has a successful design business in London. She has moved from Muswell Hill in London with her husband Paul, a man in his early 60s, played so roundly by Nicholas Rowe, that we don’t feel disturbed that all we know about his character is that he enjoys the arts, and loves her passionately and devotedly. In her state-of-the-nation speech, Audrey defends the gig economy – “A part of me doesn’t understand why it’s politically incorrect.” Audrey also defends the “country house culture” of the 70s, which she thinks was destroyed by the 80s.
Zara, Audrey’s sensationally red-haired, 22-year-old daughter by her (late) former husband (Charlotte Hope) is not so pleased to leave her publishing placement with Bloomsbury in London, though she is confident that her degree in English from Trinity College Cambridge will result in her getting a good job in the end. Along with them has come Anna, in her thirties, the “partner” of Audrey’s son, Zara’s brother, James, who uncharacteristically joined the army, and was killed in what, Anna says, he believed “was a folly. He died for nothing.” Anna’s role is taken by Vinette Robinson, who has the credibility to roll the length of the stage in the soil in a rainstorm and then make love to the tree at its far end. (Stage directions: “She starts…fucking it.”) She rebuts Audrey’s state-of-the-nation position thus: Pretending “that it’s like it was; this is the twenty-first century, Things have changed for the better.” And during an Agatha Christie-themed party at Albion, Anna complains: “To have to dress up like this. The 1920s were awful. War across the world, women having to fight for the vote, racism, rape, murder, child abuse.”
If the ideological speeches are a little long and artless, the ghosts make up for them. The dead son, James, is played as a wordless, hunky soldier by Wil Coban, who doubles as the silent, gorgeous Weatherbury, the army captain who was saved from death in WWI and came back to make the garden at Albion in the early 1920s, intending the Red Garden to commemorate the loss of his comrades. Both characters appear only in tableaux, the lighting and music making these apparitions both menacing and heart-rending.
Also from London comes Katherine Sanchez, Audrey’s university best friend, now a celebrated novelist – though, stretching belief a little – Audrey alone is unaware of her fame. Katherine’s sexuality is not obvious’ indeed Audrey never realised when younger and sharing a bed, that Katherine “had feelings” for her. You can see that it’s not going to be a good idea to leave Katherine alone in the garden with Zara. Helen Schlesinger plays Katherine with a narrow-eyed frown that made me think instantly of Shirley Carter (Linda Henry) in EastEnders – and I mean this as the highest possible compliment, as we know from the start that she’s going to be a hard, hard woman. Yet Audrey thinks she is the harder-headed, and says to her: “You’re completely heart. You don’t need the facts because you feel something to be true. And that’s wonderful,” she goes on, a touch long-windedly and not very believably, “but I have advised the government on manufacturing policy, on social deprivation, and employment. I know the facts.”
Then there are Bartlett’s rural characters, all wonderfully imagined. We get to know best Gabriel, who used to clean the windows for “the previous,” and has come to Albion hoping to earn a bit towards his university fees. It turns out he, like Zara, is an aspiring writer, reads and admires Katherine’s novels, and hopes to do Creative Writing at Oxford Brookes. Zara sensibly tells the good-looking 19-year-old to set his sights higher, and try for “Oxford proper”. (Disclosure: Oxford is one of my four universities; but I also served a term as a Member of Court of Oxford Brookes, though wasn’t much aware of the Creative Writing course.) Luke Thallon plays Gabriel with a grin so wide that I have seen its like only on Dean Gaffney in EastEnders; and at the beginning of Act Three, when the stage directions require him to be shirtless and show off his six-pack, Thallon looks exactly like a boy who has just completed his first six months at the gym. Though Zara treats Gabriel as a social equal, offering him tea and later, a drink, when Audrey dismisses him from the social circle, Bartlett cleverly defeats the natural thought that the two are made for each other.
Oddly enough, in this rural British idyll, the key character is the 20-something Polish cleaner, Krystyna (Edyta Budnik), introduced to Audrey by a neighbour, Edward (Nigel Betts), who employs her a couple of days a week, and convinces Audrey that the Pole will be more efficient than Cheryl (Margot Leicester), who is in her late 60s, as is her husband, Matthew, the gardener, who have been at Albion for the past 20 years. Cheryl and Matthew are, of course, out of pocket because of Krystyna, and when the whole show looks as though it’s collapsing, Bartlett brilliantly enlarges their characters and startles us by having the elderly Cheryl say they’ll get by, because “We have good sex.”
Krystyna (the only rural-dweller who knows who Audrey is, because her boyfriend bought a white tablecloth from one of her shops) informs the audience (on p.36 of the text) that Audrey is a successful businesswoman who built her own business. Krystyna is a rhetorical device, of sorts, as her character makes it possible for Bartlett to tackle the ideological question of the moment without even mentioning the word “Brexit.” The Polish cleaner runs her own cleaning business (and indeed, ends up employing Cheryl to help clean Albion). Her slightly too-wordy anti-Brexit speech goes:
I will never be British but I think the truth is that there is a respect for money and work here. And that’s all that matters. There is a long tradition of immigrant communities arriving, being discriminated against, but working hard and within twenty years they are accepted. It is happening with the Polish. I think people like Polish builders, and workers now.
Gabriel ripostes: “If they’re allowed to stay,” and Krystyna then states the obvious: “You would lose so much.”
Audrey loses her dream, of course. The villagers are hostile, she seems stand-offish; it’s foolish to try to hold on to something that was built nearly a century earlier, when views about, and the reality of, economics and class were so very different.
Some of my colleagues have awarded their maximum 5-stars to Albion, and I don’t dissent from this judgment. Rupert Goold’s stagecraft is thrilling; you never doubt the characters’ involvement with one another, and rarely feel you’re being hectored or preached at. I’ve tried to give away as little as possible of the dramatic surprises and reversals of this wondrous play. My only reservation is that I found the ending ambiguous as performed, with a rare rose preserved. It’s not a spoiler to say, though, that the text is apocalyptic, with the garden rotting “even more. The ground is returned to soil. The house is destroyed.” I don’t know whether Mike Bartlett changed his mind, or whether I was being dim when I saw the finale of this long play. You’ll simply have to see it yourself to decide.