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.

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