Mike Bartlett’s 2017 play Albion is about a garden, a war memorial, a family, and a nation. It’s about the dangers of trying to reclaim or recreate the past, and the temptations and costs of nostalgia. Now, reprised at the Almeida for the month of February 2020, it feels even more timely as a message as to what kind of country Brexit Britain has allowed itself to become, and what it might yet delude itself into doing.
Audrey Walters (played, as in the original run, by Victoria Hamilton) has left London and bought the country house formerly lived in by her uncle. The house, however, is barely referenced in the play – except as a source of anxiety and expense – compared to the appeal of its garden. Laid out by a famous designer (‘Weatherbury’) in the wake of the First World War, we are told that its series of individual ‘rooms’ became a template for subsequent designs, conceived as a memorial to those British soldiers who never returned from the trenches. The garden is in poor repair, but with her memories of visiting it when she was child Audrey is resolved to see it returned to the beauty and renown that it once held.
Immediately, though, the audience sees the problems inherent in this scheme: the family’s move out of London that is not to the liking of Audrey’s daughter, Zara, and is accepted, if not with much enthusiasm, by her second husband, Paul. Why would a successful businesswoman pledge herself to such a project? Is her desire to make the garden a memorial to her dead son, James, a soldier killed in a more recent conflict, altogether rational, or has she conflated different forms of loss into one place – most clearly when she reveals that after months of keeping the urn with her, unsure as to what to do with its contents, she has scattered her son’s ashes in the garden without consulting his partner, Anna?
Anna, grieving for a man she knew briefly only to lose in traumatic circumstances, is unable to move on from James’ death, and comes to ‘visit’ the garden repeatedly in search of a sense of connection. The restoration project, though, is far from simple. The resident gardener, Matthew, reminds Audrey that climate change would necessitate a different planting scheme than that of the 1920s, while the local community – having become used to having access to the garden for their events – are unhappy at Audrey’s exclusionary approach. “We have to feel we own it,” she tells Edward, apologising that the village fete will need a new venue. She wants a return to a past state, but only in ways that satisfy her, and the nostalgic vision soon gives way to cliché. In Act Two we see the characters ‘in costume’ for a 1920s-era murder mystery party, as though the house and garden are more about the past than the world of the present, in which the Polish cleaner, Krystyna, takes on the part of a housemaid rather than the enterprising woman whose business – unlike Audrey’s – is benefitting from her efforts and attention.
The relationship between the real and unreal, the fictional and the ‘true’ provides an undercurrent in the play as a whole. Audrey’s friend Katherine is a novelist, while Zara, with her English degree from Cambridge, has hopes of getting an entry into the literary world as a writer or through publishing. Gabriel, a young man from the village who graduates from window cleaner to gardener in the first half of the play, is taking a year out before embarking on a creative writing programme. In time, these strands become dangerously intertwined, and hopes and loyalties are strained by the inability of those around Audrey to fully and unquestionably accept her vision of the future for the garden, the family, the community, or for them.
At one point, having been told by Audrey that she found her most recent novel filled with characters that “you didn’t like very much” Katherine replies that the 587-page work was “a satire on the wilfully ignorant people who seem to be full of hate”, adding that the garden project is hardly a bulwark against the very forces of small-minded nationalism that are gaining ground as Audrey retreats into nostalgia. As we saw in his earlier work, Charles III, a Shakespearean-style version of a tale of monarchical fallibility, Bartlett has a keen sense of how literature frames our sense of time, place, and culture. With its title invoking an older name for England itself (frequently used by William Blake) and reprising the metaphor of ‘the garden as nation’ from Shakespeare’s Richard II, his play probes the need to find a sense of mental and physical belonging in a place whilst at the same time warning against the costs of letting those desires obscure other realities.
Nature is cyclical, and by the end of the play all of the characters have certainly undergone a range of experiences, trials, and changes. It is hard, though, to see that any of them are better for the experience, unless one considers Krystyna’s hopes for the future to be a counterpoint to a deteriorating English situation. The human and the economic costs of Audrey’s plan have become all too plain, but even at the last she cannot and will not abandon the vision of the garden that she has allowed herself to form. “I don’t want anything else but this piece of land” she shouts, frantically digging in the earth of her fantasy garden as her family fragments around her, her business slides into ruin, and her sanity becomes questionable. As the discourse surrounding Britain’s identity, future direction, and fate becomes increasingly febrile Albion has lost none of its resonance and power to unsettle. It is undeniably a play for today: and more worryingly shows every sign of being a play for tomorrow as well.
Albion is at the Almeida Theatre, London, until 29th February. See https://almeida.co.uk/whats-on/albion/3-feb-2020-29-feb-2020