james debate
james debate

Monday 27 November 2017

Directed by Rupert Goold
Written by Mike Bartlett
Starring Victoria Hamilton, Helen Schlesinger, Charlotte Hope, Christopher Fairbank
Theatre Almeida

albion almeida mike bartlett brexit boris theresa may corbyn trump king charles

Once in a while comes an artistic work that perfectly encapsulates the times in which we live. Mike Bartlett, a playwright best known for the excellent King Charles III, is a writer of astute observation, and a penchant for having his thumb on the societal pulse. King Charles asked questions as to the relevance of an archaic Monarchy in an age of YouTube and celebrity culture, Albion is perhaps even more poignant in its addressing of the challenges currently facing the United Kingdom.

Albion tells the story of Audrey Walters, who takes ownership of a historic and once beautiful garden, now overgrown and a shade of its former self, with the intention of restoring it to the former glory that she remembers from her younger days. In doing so, she implements tighter restrictions on when her neighbours can and can't enter the garden, and makes decisions that detrimentally impact the futures of the local youth. Her blind zeal ultimately ends up alienating her neighbours, her liberal intellectual friends, and her children, leaving Audrey alone, economically ruined, and with a garden of which people no longer want any part. The garden is named Albion (an archaic name for Great Britain).

I don't think it will surprise you too much to hear that this is a metaphor for Brexit, and one which is not exactly awash with ambiguity at that. At times the use of metaphor can be a little bit on the nose, be it the replacing of the doddering old British caretakers with a far more industrious Polish worker, or the scene where Audrey is lambasted for idealising a past which no longer exists, while whitewashing the negative aspects of that same past (an allusion to British Imperial guilt).

This allegory forms the backdrop to a more traditional narrative. A rural setting, familial drama, wider socioeconomic tensions between the established values of the past, and an oncoming future that threatens upheaval. It's all very much in the mould of an Anton Chekhov play, in particular the Cherry Orchard, and that comparison is presumably no accident. There is after all no reason to set a Brexit allegory in so deliberate a Chekhovian setting, and one has to wonder if the influence of a Russian author on this setting is intended as a commentary on the Russian influence over its subject matter.

Indeed one could write a whole essay on the subtext at play here, but I don't wish to spoil everything. Suffice it to say, each character fills a clear role in this metaphor, from Audrey's detached "intellectual elite" friend Katherine, to the directionless youth "Zara", or the ineffectual but steadfast husband Paul, who perhaps not so coincidentally happens to look and speak a lot like Prince Charles, and fulfil a support role not incomparable to that of the monarchy in modern day Britain.

Fortunately, if the overly deliberate attempt at political commentary can be a bit off-putting, it's more than compensated for by the quality of its execution. Aside from the occasional clumsy analogy, the writing here is sharp and to the point, occasionally hilarious. The production is bold and stylish, with striking setpieces punctuating the key moments of drama. Rupert Goold is on a roll this year at the Almeida, and Albion continues to establish his name as one of the great artistic directors in the game today.

The performances are particularly worthy of note. Victoria Hamilton's portrayal of Audrey is remarkable; the scene feels electrified every time she is on stage, and she will surely be a frontrunner in this year's theatre accolades.

But ultimately this is a play of its themes, and in my view one that succeeds. While Albion will no doubt draw most of the discussion to its commentary on Brexit, the core of its message really lies with the British people, and the divisions in today's society. I mentioned earlier the roles of the individual characters, and indeed each of these roles essentially pertains to a particular demographic, and explores the way in which the politics of today has affected those people. This is where the production really feels invaluable as a commentary on our times.

It's been a very strong year for new plays, but Bartlett's latest is as good as any I've seen all year. Essential viewing.

Thursday 2 November 2017

It has been two decades since Phillip Pullman wrote the first entry in the His Dark Materials trilogy, The Northern Lights (known as The Golden Compass in the US). The novel's standing during this time has risen to the point where it is considered by many to be among the most important pieces of children's/young adult fiction ever written. Now Pullman returns to the series with his new Book of Dust trilogy. Let's mark this occasion by taking a look at why Pullman's work still resonates to such an extent.

his dark materials golden compass northern lights philip pullman book of dust belle sauvage influential classic harry potter

Few artistic works manage to attain high levels of both critical and commercial success, but in the case of His Dark Materials, the praise coming from professional observers has been equally matched by the adulation of its readers. Indeed the series has garnered enduring acclaim, and literary awards including the Carnegie Medal, the Whitbread book of the year (the first time the award has gone to a children's novel), and the Astrid Lindgren award, a prize considered to be second only to the Nobel prize in literature. The series has spawned an award winning National Theatre production, an upcoming BBC adaptation, and a film that we'll just pretend doesn't exist. For many of us who grew up during the 1990s, and especially in the United Kingdom, The Northern Lights represents a dear part of our childhood, and is the essential novel that drew a generation into reading.

It's easy to see why the series so successfully engaged its readers, with its imaginative, yet tangible setting and full-bodied characters. This world is imbued with a formidably rich mythology, mesmerising and varied locations, and rewarding story arcs that draw the reader in and make them genuinely care about what happens. From the moment we first join young protagonist Lyra and Pantalaimon sneaking through the halls of Oxford we are hooked through the stories to come, be they delightful or heartbreaking.

But the appeal of this work goes beyond its narrative thrill. Plenty of other novels of the genre feature exciting adventures and likeable characters, Harry Potter comes to mind. What makes His Dark Materials stand out is the way its surreal worlds convey a deeper reflection of our own reality. The series' Magisterium offers a clear and scathing critique of the Catholic Church, and its war against the ambiguous property referred to as Dust can be seen as many things; a war on knowledge and enlightenment, a war on decadence and independence, or simply a resistance to change and growth. These novels are not merely some secular smear on religiosity, but a powerful rebuke of any dogma that values power and ignorance over truth. These themes of corruption and authoritarianism are more relevant than ever today.

Even beyond the politics and philosophy, there's something altogether more fundamental at the core of the series. These elements provide the intellectual backdrop to what is ultimately the classic coming of age story. Through the pre-adolescent eyes of Lyra the series explores the nature of friendship, the confusion of love, and comes to terms with the inevitability of loss. Unlike, for example, Harry Potter, this is not some fantasy power-trip of a powerful wizard fighting another powerful wizard to defeat evil and then they all live happily ever after. Lyra is a child entering a world dominated by forces far more powerful than her that she can't possibly understand. Just like the rest of us, Lyra cares less for the obscure machinations of the world around her than for the deeper personal drives which motivate us; rescuing a friend, reuniting with a lost parent.

So for all its fantastical tropes, His Dark Materials is a series that seeks to awaken its young audience to the real and overwhelming aspects of the world we live in. It's a series that by its premise encourages its developing minds to engage in critical thinking and to place value on knowledge and truth. But for all of its complexity, this is above all a series that helps those at a critical juncture to explore the very personal dilemmas of growing up that they themselves are faced with. Less of a magical diversion, and more a lifting of the veil. At the time, it was radical reading for impressionable young minds, and a revelatory experience. So it remains. As an artistic work, this is still an essential read for the new generation about to enter the wider world, and its status among the most influential literature of our time is well deserved.

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