FringeReview UK 2017
Rupert Goold directs Mike Bartlett’s third paly to premiere at the Almeida. Miriam Beuther’s thrust stage set features four seasons of a garden’s earth, with its opening and close carrying an acrid visionary scent. Neil Austin’s lighting slants seasons through sunlight and intrusive blasts of real villagers in Gregory Clarke’s soundbursts.
Albion marks a watershed. Mike Bartlett’s known for two kinds of play. Till now the most successful have been those that close in on their main protagonist, boxing them into oblivion: Contractions, Bull, King Charles III and in part Game – the latter two like Albion premiered at the Almeida, here directed by Rupert Goold. Others like Earthquakes in London try the reverse, people jumping their fates. Results are baggy.
Albion’s subtly different, partly through unsubtly signalling its Blakean scope. Its protagonist like King Charles III is more the author of her own alienation, but here there aren’t other forces, and in Victoria Hamilton’s astounding performance of the bullish Audrey Walters Bartlett’s broken new ground: quite literally as Miriam Beuther’s thrust stage set features four seasons of a garden’s earth, with its opening and close carrying an acrid visionary scent. Neil Austin’s lighting slants seasons through sunlight and intrusive blasts of real villagers in Gregory Clarke’s soundbursts herald just one of the Chekhovian themes Bartlett intends we should pick up.
In case we’re in any doubt, he paraphrases the last act of The Cherry Orchard and a swathe of The Seagull in the prentice and acclaimed writers/lover triangle. If this is about Britain, Bartlett’s assertion as a British Chekhov is more playful than Rattigan’s mantle, more keen to draw parallels with an expiring Russian class and the UK in flux.
Walter’s taking time out from her company to restore a visionary gardener’s creation to its former glory, a word here resonantly Kiplingesque. That gardener, Weatherbury, had returned from The First World War to create a memorial and the prologue suffuses this rather heavily in Elgar’s wartime The Spirit of England, specifically ‘For the Fallen’. But in Walter’s obsessive reclamation of a past she imperfectly grasps, she fails to see she herself as its nemesis. Bartlett’s play isn’t just physically layered, with the cast bringing on or taking off flowering shrubs for the summer months: it effortlessly generates levels of its own.
Walter’s a disturber not only in practical terms, but because the founder of the garden she so zealously sets about rescuing created it for fallen comrades, hence The Red Garden. Walter’s own exhortations to her fallen son James (like Weatherbury, a captain, both played in dumb show by Wil Coban) to join up ended in Afghanistan, a war more pointless than the one Weatherbury returned from to create.
It’s a paradox that Hamilton so ferociously conveys: an entrepreneur who, aggressively putting down roots, ends in a vast uprooting: alienating family, oldest friend and neighbours. Hamilton points up all Walter’s class pretensions including her initial treatment of Gabriel and others as servants who should use trades-peoples’ entrances.
In fact everyone’s a servant. ‘Your voice is very brittle when you snap like that, Zara’ she tells her daughter. Her husband’s driftiness she declares is ‘because you’ve Spanish blood.’ Hamilton’s brittle obliviousness points up Bartlett’s satire to uneasy laughter. But she humanizes a parodic monster whom Bartlett touches into life only towards the end.
Walter’s hauling a reluctant extended family: Paul, an immensely pliable quietly tough appendage of a husband. Nicholas Rowe’s accommodating gambits might remind us of the one British writer – William Gerhardie – who lived in Moscow and married Russian accidie to British. There’s a modern snap in Charlotte Hope’s fresh Zara, straight out of Cambridge into a flat publisher’s job, as much desirous of being a writer as Luke Thallon’s appealingly hesitant Gabriel, a middle class window-cleaner waiting for a creative writing place Zara tries talking him out of – for a more prestigious degree. Zara might appear more supportive of Gabriel, but misdirected entitlements of mother and daughter leave their mark.
Finally there’s Anna, James’ intended, Vinette Robinson’s tremulous portrayal of someone who’s never recovered and has a secret weapon. At the thunderous end of the first half Anna, traumatised that James’ ashes have been scattered, dances in a storm frantically smearing earth and ash into her shirt, skirt, groin, anywhere a frantic fertility rite suggests itself. It’s a moment that seems unnecessary, though here (unlike those exploitative moments in the National’s recent Hedda Gabler) there’s at least a payoff.
Bartlett’s evocation here is unique. Both Walters arrive from a bygone age so ancient retainers don’t appear alien, but too rooted to the spot. Margot Leicester’s querulous Cheryl, pushed aside and ultimately directed by a young Polish woman (Edyta Budnik, all clipped pragmatism); and her gardener husband Matthew, Christopher Fairbank. Leicester’s quiet desperation, surviving illness and sidelining is conveyed in clipped dogged assertions. Fairbank starting ruminantly wise ends in a slightly different place, touchingly conveyed, and his last action touching and apposite: he has the last word. Bartlett has patience to convey their capacity to endure.
There’s a neat summary too in how Walter charms and disappoints neighbours in Nigel Betts’ Edward, a gently faded squire who elects to allow the village pop festival on his land, since Walter refuses her own, breaking tradition. Alongside Gabriel he registers disquiet in a filtered gentility quite new in Bartlett.
The alien corn is old university friend Katherine Sanchez, played with a wry inwardness and bleak passion by Helen Schlesinger. It’s the most vestigial friendship, baffling in its faint absurdity – explained in part by a youthful crush. Walters has never read a word of her friend’s famous novels though Zara and Gabriel worship her. As to their quality Walter’s dismissive, and the satirical Brexit sketches that emerge prompt treacherous parallels with The Seagull’s Tregorin. Bartlett though seems to suggest an altogether more benign, conflicted writer, susceptible to charms but prepared for self-sacrifice.
The way Bartlett subverts expectation at the very last moment – and Goold seems to have built further on this – marks something characteristic of him, in how he wants to release his characters, and how in this case it will end. A waft of Kate Bush’s Lionheart – as an exuent – counterparts the Elgar, measuring the stretch.
Hamilton dominates, but there’s superb work from Rowe and Schlesinger, with relative newcomer Hope, Leicester and Fairbank memorably vivid in how they register displacement and loss. It’s a fine ensemble piece. Goold has given Albion the air it needs, and it breathes back: chilly, autumnal, an unsettling parable on forcing an identity of ourselves. If we’re thinking culture we need to beware how it can be turned false and damaging too.