Mike Bartlett, acclaimed screenwriter of Doctor Foster, has his 2017 play Albion revived by director Rupert Goold in the wake of Brexit Britain. Reminiscent of a Chekhov play or an E.M Forster novel, Albion reflects on the idea of all consuming nostalgia and how this plays into nationalistic sensibilities.
With a run time of around 3 hours long (including interval), you need to be in the right headspace for this production, but the combination of subplots help to drive the main narrative.
Audrey Walters is a city dwelling business woman who decides to move herself and her family to rural Oxfordshire and build back up her distant relative’s garden. Audrey’s daughter Zara is pining for meaning and purpose in her early 20s, whilst Audrey’s second husband Paul is just quite happy going along with the ride and then their is Anna; their son James’ partner, who is reeling with the family over his passing through his work for the army. As they meet their village neighbours and old family friend Katherine returns, their lives slowly clash and interwine with Katherine the village residents: Gabriel, Matthew, Cheryl, Krystyna and Edward.
Audrey embodies the stereotypical Conservative sentiments: a woman who has risen her business from the ground and now intends to do the same with the garden – but is unwilling to share her success. Edward asks whether they can continue to have the village festival take place in the garden and Audrey continues to refuse and ‘privatises’ the garden, and hearing the sounds of the festival from his garden irritates her. Victoria Hamilton, most recently of The Crown fame, gives a performance as powerful as a tidal wave, as she goes from subtle nuances to heartbreakingly powerful stature.
The whole family continues to have “champagne problems”, as Zara puts it; alongside their genuine heavy hearts from their loss of their son/brother, they agonise over what is going to fulfill them. Zara takes refuge in writing and literature, much like villager Gabriel. The pair are then put in a juxtaposition against each other. We see Zara has the means to: get a degree from Cambridge, gain literary connections, and can afford to do unpaid internships. Meanwhile, Gabriel dreams of going to university but cannot afford to go, and is criticised by Zara for wanting to do Creative Writing instead of a Literature degree. In her professional stage debut, Daisy Edgar-Jones produces a wondrous performance, as Zara, and it will be exciting to see her develop further as an actor in the upcoming television adaptation of Normal People.
Bartlett has written incredibly real and well rounded characters, making the lengthy drama engaging, except for the character of Anna – the only scruple of the production. Audrey, quite rightly so, says grief is an individual experience, so maybe Anna is misunderstood: but her grief is so extreme and nobody sets out to get her some professional help. Anna was only with James for 3 months, and the fact that two years later she is still within a devastatingly uncontrollable state of grief, and the subsequent actions she takes in this state, seem slightly implausible. It would have been better to have left out the mention of the length of their relationship, or to have made Anna an Ophelia character that was helped instead of criticised. Despite this, Angel Coulby performs the Act I finale, of the dramatic culmination of Anna’s grief, with ardor creating a beautiful interlude between this and Act II.
The comparison between: the Walters’ privilege, the left-wing ideals of the astonishing Helen Schlesinger as Katherine, and the community-first nature of the village, makes for an interesting comment on our current society. There are certain quotes from Bartlett’s astounding writing that speak volumes about the current state of our country. This production is very much one of its time, but like Chekhov before him: Bartlett’s production will continue to live on and his words breathe new meaning into different eras to come.