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Albion review – Mike Bartlett's thorny study of politics and patriotism | Stage


In 2017, Rupert Goold directed a state-of-the-nation play by Mike Bartlett that did not once mention Brexit, though it was palpable in the lives of the middle-class family who move from London to a rural corner of England. Albion studied politics, patriotism and the seductions of nostalgia through the prism of family life. It is now back at the Almeida with much of the old cast – Victoria Hamilton is still the formidable matriarch, Audrey – and its island-shaped stage.

Why has Goold revived Bartlett’s play so soon? Because, he writes: “Plays, like plants, grow over time. Their meanings shift.” Britain’s departure from the EU inevitably changes the way this play is received. One character sneers at the “European temperament”, another speaks of the “shocking result of a completely unnecessary plebiscite” and the central garden on stage – which represents an old, unspoilt England for Audrey – is spoken of as a “battlefield”. Maybe the echoes and ironies in Albion will resound more deeply when we have greater real-life distance. Either way, it remains a deeply satisfying and powerful piece of theatre.

In form, it is at once a sly satire of a country-house drama and a faithful enactment of it. Albion unfolds at an unhurried pace, there are explosive undercurrents between characters and plot turns are thrown in like hand grenades. Silences carry weight and Bartlett’s script is filled with ideas – and also grabs at our hearts.

Miriam Buether’s set, designed as a garden, is planted into the ground by actors in a touching interlude, and then dug up just as movingly.





Tour de force … Victoria Hamilton.



Tour de force … Victoria Hamilton. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Hamilton’s brisk, bossy Audrey, who has lost her son in war, sets about designing the garden of the crumbling country estate as a memorial to war veterans. Just as The Cherry Orchard’s Madame Ranevskaya looks out across her land and says: “Out there at least nothing has changed. My orchard gleams as white, as pure as ever”, so Audrey seeks to bypass the present and reinstate the glorious past.

But the ground keeps shifting and she variously appears as a dangerous nativist and a romantic idealist. The soil itself becomes a potent symbol of British identity: it contains the ashes of her son, the bones of the war dead before him and, for Audrey, represents their sacrifice.

Hamilton gives a tour de force but she is not the only fine performer. Nicholas Rowe offers light relief as her ineffectual husband; Helen Schlesinger is both likable and offputting as Audrey’s accomplished friend; Angel Coulby, as the girlfriend of Audrey’s dead son, and Daisy Edgar-Jones, as Audrey’s daughter, are engaging.

Real-world politics cast a subtly different light on Bartlett’s play, just as in the Watermill’s 2018 revival of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, and Albion gathers a truly mournful spirit by the end.

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