Words by George Clark
Keep off the grass – Albion shows that keeping the world out does not make for a happy society.
The Mike Bartlett/ Rupert Goold production partnership is no stranger to finding controversy through social commentary; with ‘King Charles III’ raising questions regarding the nature of the British monarchy as well as the hierarchical system as a whole. And if that variety of hot-button, divisive issue confrontation is what you enjoy in theatre then their current production ‘Albion’, does not disappoint.
It is, as I can only describe as a smorgasbord of current political, geopolitical, cultural and social issues reflecting Britain’s past, present and [most importantly] future. They try to mirror the epoch of the nation with every character, plot device and major piece of set echoing the sentiments of one sector the British populous or another. What you’re left with is an emotional and intellectual battering of ideas and theories, (with some points being made more subtly than others) all tied around the story of a woman’s desire to resurrect the roses of the past, whilst neglecting the thorns.
We follow Audrey (Victoria Hamilton) as she attempts to reclaim the unspoiled beauty of an old English garden, modelling it after the design of a former soldier. However, this proves difficult, especially with her daughter Zara (Charlotte Hope) who is struggling with life outside of London, desperately trying to live any life that she can, ends up idealising the work of her mother’s best friend and famous author; Kathrine Sanchez (Helen Schlesinger). After meeting they spark up what seems to be played as a lustful however short-sighted interpretation of love inspired by Audrey’s constant controlling as a mother and huge personal distance as a friend. Her elder child, James (Wil Coban), died two years previously serving in Afghanistan and we get to see the conflict between Audrey and her daughter in law to-be Anna (Vinette Robinson). We witness their conflict of desires for what should happen to James’ remains; Audrey spreads his ashes on to her garden alone, not only neglecting Anna’s wishes but inadvertently connecting them all to the garden emotionally, her actions being a direct parable to the relationship between the government, the military decisions they take and the repercussions left.
Anna’s emotional arc being the most compelling and amongst some competent to great performances, Robinson’s being the strongest. We also see the strained relationship between Audrey and the help; keeping the elderly gardener and housekeeper (Christopher Fairbank and Margot Leicester respectively) at an arm’s length, talking down to them and stripping them of hours when it’s needed most. Her contempt towards the young window cleaner Gabrielle (Luke Thallon) plays as general disdain against the youth, and her admiration for the strong work ethic of Polish immigrant Krystyna (Edyta Budnik); who is happy to run herself as a business, undercutting whomever stands in her way in order to make money is nothing short of hugely convenient for Audrey. Again paralleling the expectation against the reality of workers in Britain and the disconnect between actualities and what the government perceives as real.
The performance ends with the abandonment of Audrey’s dream, the land is sold to a faceless property investor who plans to turn the estate in to a series of flats, a story now told many times in real life and which comes across as one of the more thinly veiled commentary of the whole production. Audrey breaks down and decides she cannot abandon her project, clinging to the earth itself for stability, hitting home with the strongest point of all being made- once a choice for change has been made, it must be kept to.
Albion offers many questions to the time we’re currently living in, but not many answers. It displays the downfall to the decisions currently being made but doesn’t show any real alternative. This doesn’t take away from the story of a family in crisis, but when a production like this is so suggestive and ambitious is trying to mirror the epoch of a nation, it runs the risk of simply serving as middle class catharsis, rather than pushing any ideas that serve to improve or inspire. What we get is a paranoid, sceptical insight to the symbolic, disjointed time Britain finds itself in. Often neglecting the random acts of kindness and generosity that occur within society on a daily basis. It’s often hard to sympathise with any of the characters as the majority are wholly unlike-able which leaves you distanced from the performance and it’s messages. Bartlett and Goold have created a production that is endlessly fascinating, however the hollow, disconnected after-taste left is proof that that there is still work to be done, once again, you could say, mirroring the state of Britain today.
Photo Credit: Almeida Theatre