FringeReview UK 2020
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.
Rebecca Frecknall’s Movement Director, Alison Bomber Voice Coach, Jamie Platt Associate Lighting Designer, Claire Wardroper Costumer Supervisor, Joana Dias Assistant Designer and Tom Brenna Associate Director. Till February 29th.
For Rupert Goold to revive Mike Bartlett’s Albion a little over two years after its October 2017 debut suggests this still new play’s altered more rapidly than others, whose ‘meanings shift’ as he suggests. Albion’s become part of what we know about state-of-the-nation statements. Almost like a classic play seen in a new light.
This work though is a bit like being seen in its own shadow and looming larger. Clearly timed in its short run to take in the retreat from Brexit already signalled first time round, it clarifies that retreat.
Albion marks a watershed with the playwright’s technique too. 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 as actors plant and dig up respectively like tender-planted greetings and farewells. An island, remembering Donne’s admonition dourly. Audrey though wants it entire unto herself.
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. He’s more keen to draw parallels with an expiring Russian class and the UK – with its riven classes – in flux.
It’s Audrey’s college friend novelist Katherine – a super-Tregorin whose novels Audrey Walter’s not read – who continually pushes at Audrey the heedless daughter of empire. Audrey’s high-street brand is white ‘like the customers’ barbs Katherine who also warns about ’wilfully ignorant people…. Full of hate, responsible for the shocking result of a completely unnecessary plebiscite.’ Yet Audrey’s initiative enshrines just such a retreat to faux-nostalgia, with an admix of imperiously-treated staff and a village who ends hating her.
Audrey’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, aptly named Weatherbury, had returned from The First World War to create a memorial and Clarke’s musical prologue suffuses this in Elgar’s wartime The Spirit of England, specifically ‘For the Fallen’. Later there’s Peter Gabriel. But in Audrey’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.
Audrey’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. Audrey’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. Guilt and grief lie at the bottom of Audrey’s ruthless drive.
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 Audrey’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’ Audrey tells her daughter. Her husband’s driftiness she declares is ‘because you’ve Spanish blood.’ No Protestant purpose. 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.
Audrey’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 Daisy Edgar-Jones’s fresh Zara, straight out of Cambridge into a flat publisher’s job, as much desirous of being a writer as Donal Finn’s appealingly hesitant Gabriel, a burr-rich window-cleaner waiting to take up 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. Like Finn, Edgar-Jones is new to the role and makes it engagingly her own – with an air of hurt preppiness and impulse.
Finally there’s Anna, James’ intended, Angel Coulby’s tremulous portrayal of someone who’s never recovered and has a secret weapon. Like Edgar-Jones and Finn she’s fresh to the role and in her very stance and hunch, shows off Anna’s rooted defiance. Though initially dependant Anna’s the one who salvages miraculous future out of sheer loss. 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. Excessive? There’s 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 Krystyna a young Polish woman; and there’s her gardener husband Matthew, inhabited now in a compelling performance by Geoffrey Freshwater.
Leicester’s quiet desperation, surviving illness and sidelining – as well as withering disdain for Katherine – is conveyed in clipped dogged humour, and hurt. Freshwater starting ruminantly wise ends in a slightly different place, touchingly conveyed, and his last action touching and apposite: he has the last word like Chekhov’s Firs. Bartlett has patience to convey their capacity to endure.
Edyta Budnik’s refreshingly tart Krystyna – all clipped pragmatism – is as withering as Katherine about where the UK’s headed and refreshing in calling out bullshit, whether cleaning-jobs or calf-love. ‘You should try to make it less obvious’ she admonishes Gabriel,
There’s a neat summary too in how Audrey charms and disappoints neighbours in Nigel Betts’ Edward, a gently squared squire who elects to allow the village pop festival on his land, since Audrey refuses her own, breaking tradition. Alongside Gabriel he registers disquiet in a filtered dignity new in Bartlett.
The alien corn is old university friend Katherine Sanchez, played with 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. Audrey one feels makes a point of never having read a word of her friend’s famous novels though Zara and Gabriel worship her. As to their quality Audrey’s dismissive when she gets round to one, and the satirical Brexit sketches that emerge prompt treacherous parallels with The Seagull’s Tregorin. Bartlett though seems to suggest a more benign, conflicted writer with a blind chill factor: susceptible to charms but prepared for self-sacrifice.
The way Bartlett subverts expectation at the very last moment – though Goold wisely stops short of emphatic stage directions – marks something characteristic of him, in how he wants to release his characters. A waft of Kate Bush’s Lionheart – as an exuent – counterparts the Elgar, measuring the stretch.
Hamilton still dominates, but there’s superb work from Rowe and Schlesinger, with relative newcomers Edgar-Jones, Coulby and Finn. Leicester and newcomer Freshwater remain memorably vivid in how they register displacement loss and coping. And there’s a magnificently funny reveal.
Albion underscores its impression as a superb ensemble piece, generous to its characters. And it’s grown since 2017, literally rooting itself in how to stage departures from hollow myth. Elements that seemed force now fit as if they always did. Goold’s given Albion the air it needs too, and it breathes back: chilly, autumnal, an unsettling parable on forcing an identity of ourselves. If we’re thinking culture we can beware how it turns false and lethal too.