Albion: a place from Arthurian legend that still continues to exist today, only we don’t call it that. We call it England.
The word Albion takes on a whole new meaning as the title of Mike Bartlett’s 2017 tragicomedy, revised in January 2020 at the Almeida Theatre and broadcasted on BBC4. It’s a play that feels akin to Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, but goes further in portraying the England’s national identity as both parody and eulogy. Which of these you’re drawn to will depend on your politics, but the show still conveys the meaning of the other just as well.
Taking place over the course of one year, Albion is set in the garden of an Oxfordshire estate, recently bought and renovated by businesswoman Audrey Walters (played by Victoria Hamilton), who fondly remembers a house there from her childhood. To her, a home is a place to build up and maintain the legacy of a proud past, no matter the consequence. But consequences quickly start to appear as her obsession starts to alienate her in the eyes of all around, from her daughter, Zara (played by Daisy Edgar-Jones), to her decades-long writer friend, Katherine (played by Helen Schlesinger), to Anna, the girlfriend of her son (played by Angel Coulby).
Firstly, I must praise Victoria Hamilton for her stellar performance. Albion is a wonderfully acted play by all involved, but Hamilton is clearly the stand out feature of the whole production. Hers is a difficult role to carry; Audrey’s devolution to her ideal English fantasy makes her a character that is completely ridiculous at the start, and slowly more detestable as the play goes on. However, Hamilton sells it in such a way that there is true sincerity to her character, as well as an emotional core that means that, despite everything, you’re unlikely to not leave the performance with a feeling of sympathy towards her.
Aside from its performances, Albion’s main appeal lies in its desire to sit down and untangle the webs of mythologisation that has come to rest in the heart of the English Imagined Community. Bartlett’s ambitions for the play are as grand as Audbrey’s are for the garden, and whilst it doesn’t always hit the mark, it certainly leaves an impression. It’s all there: WW1, stiff upper lip mentality, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, tea parties, white tie events, and colonialism. The entire identity of England is placed under the microscope. I have to admit, some parts work more than others; there’s a subplot about a Polish cleaner replacing an ageing English houseworker which feels somewhat clunky, but it’s an interesting exploration of contemporary memorialisation and fetishisation of the myth of Britain.
The entire play takes place in the one location, the garden, and the scene is realised wonderfully. With stunning set design from Miriam Buether, the garden feels both malleable, with plants and flowers growing and wilting throughout the year, and timeless, courtesy of a never-moving oak tree at its peak that overshadows the rest of the garden. It manages to convey an understanding of why Audrey is so attached to space, even though it is quickly overshadowed by the weight of the character’s conflict.
The technical aspect of the Albion is really good throughout, although its use of contemporary pop songs for a number of physical theatre sequences often feels a bit much, and even strangely anachronistic at times; it creates a strong sense of ambience that is to be expected if you’ve seen any other production at the Almedia. The way the BBC have filmed it is also really good, capturing conflict and emotional subtlety with ease, and managing to illustrate the sliding scale of intimacy to frenzied conflict and vocalised apologias throughout the production.
As an analysis of national identity, Albion definitely makes an impact and will likely leave many families arguing about who exactly is in the right. Blood will be spilled as awkward conversations are negotiated around, but it’s probably best worked out now then over an actual political event. But if you can endure the fallout, Albion is a play that’s funny, cathartic, ridiculous and tragic. Tapping into the political zeitgeist without drawing on specific events or figures, it’s a story that is unfortunately likely to be continuously relevant for a long time.
Words by Mischa Alexander.
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