You’d imagine that taking a group of people out of London and putting them in the countryside would help to alleviate any tension that might be present among them; there’ll be peaceful scenery and time to relax, away from the oppressive city. However, Albion is written by Mike Bartlett and so, as is in keeping with much of his writing, the various relationship dynamics are challenged, scrutinised and many torn apart.
The play centres around Audrey, a stubborn matriarch played faultlessly by Victoria Hamilton, who is desperate to create a perfect picture of life (think Country Living magazine). She starts to create this ‘picture’ with her intense obsession for making her garden, or “our garden” as her husband points out on multiple occasions, beautiful, but it soon becomes clear it is not just the flora and fauna that Audrey wants to control. While her garden can be made to be photogenic, the people around her can’t. From the rickety old cleaner to her daughter’s interest in cigarettes (not to mention older women), Audrey learns that the free will of others is something out of her grasp.
Indeed, none of the other characters wish to conform to Audrey’s ideals. Anna, (Angel Coulby), Audrey’s once daughter-in-law-to-be calls the garden “indulgent” and Zara (Daisy Edgar-Jones), Audrey’s daughter, criticises it as “morbid.” Although the characters have their differences, they all share grief – insofar as they have it in common; as Audrey says, “grief isn’t something you share.”
Hamilton conveys her transition from strong to broken by grief as she, much like the garden, falls apart. Her performance has us on tenterhooks, it’s breathtaking when she is allowed moments of stillness and hilarious in moments of comedy. Like Bartlett’s writing which is heart wrenching, but then also at times heartwarming, it becomes hard to tell whether we should be crying or laughing (at times I do both simultaneously).
From a seat in the circle as I look down at the stage I realise it looks, rather poignantly, like an island. This enhances the isolation of Audrey, who will sacrifice anything to maintain her principles. However, it is also easy to draw parallels elsewhere, given the decision implemented just last week to leave the EU, it is difficult to not read this as a post-brexit warning of the UK’s future. Written soon after the 2016 referendum, this is probably no coincidence. As Audrey’s best friend, Catherine (Helen Schlesinger) ominously warns, “principles fine, but you’ll end up alone.”
It wouldn’t be right to talk about this play without mentioning Miriam Buether’s breathtaking set design. There aren’t many places in the centre of London where you are likely to find a pastoral scene and you certainly don’t expect to find one in the middle of a theatre just off of Upper Street. However, as we enter the auditorium we are greeted by a huge tree towering over a grassy lawn and flower beds, accompanied by the gentle noise of birdsong. It feels idyllic.
Whereas in many other plays the interval would be used as an opportunity for the set change to take place Rebecca Frecknall choreographs an interlude in which the characters fill the soil that runs circularly around the stage with plants and flowers to show the passing of time. The music and other special effects like the rain make for a full sensory experience.
Albion is witty, surprising and important, it comes with a lesson that if you try to bury grief it will inevitably become unearthed.
Albion is playing the Almeida Theatre until 29 February. For more information and tickets, visit the Almeida Theatre website.