Review By Laura Heuston
Aptly named for King Arthur’s ancient paradise, Albion journeys the audience through the tragedy of English conservatism in the wake of Brexit. Production designer Monique Langford and director Lucy Clements present us with a Eden-equse scene that is slowly deconstructed, and with it, the romance of persevering the past at all costs. The play is specific to England, but there can be no doubt of the relevance of such a deconstruction to Australian society. A crucial aspect of Mike Bartlett’s writing however, is that he refuses to pass judgment on his characters. While they are often wrong, they each represent a unique political attitude and each are clearly justified from their own (relatively reasonable) perspective. Such an approach allows the audience to understand these views more deeply, and therefore see exactly where their flaws emerge.
Joanna Briant leads the play as Audrey, a successful business woman who has bought a rundown family property with a rich history. She has decided, against the wishes of many around her, to dedicate herself to the restoration and preservation of this once beautiful piece of land. Determined, talented, and utterly possessive, Briant is a titan as Audrey, lending passion and heart to a character that should be a villain but is just a touch too idealistic. Rather, she is a tragic hero who tries to bring the glory of the past into the future, but her dreams are based on a world that no longer exists, and for the better. We get a glimpse of the beauty that she pictures so clearly, but we also see who suffers, those who Audrey refuses to see herself- despite her supposed love of facts.
Jane Angharad embodies a fact of patriotism that is often ignored- the destruction of those left behind when a soldier does not come home. Angharad is Anna, the ex-partner of Audrey’s son James, who was killed in Afghanistan. Audrey does not question the cause that James died for, but Anna does, and what answers are ever going to be enough for someone who lost their greatest love in life? The tension between Briannt and Angharad is utterly palpable from the second they share the stage, as Anna represents a truth that Audrey would rather not know- her ideals are steeped in blood. Bartlett and Langford have conceived a brilliant metaphor of the “Red Garden” in which the play takes place being filled with poppies in remembrance of the lives lost in World War I. And as blood continues to be shed in the name of patriotism, Anna illustrates the ongoing devastation of those touched by war and acts as a reality that cannot be overlooked for the sake of an ideal.
And where is the left in all of this? Deborah Jones is Katherine, the author from Audrey’s past who has made all the choices that Audrey didn’t- she doesn’t like men, have children, or live in one place. Her world is broad, but she spends most of her life in a state of observation and detachment (perhaps this is why their friendship has lasted 36 years despite their opposite approaches). Jones subtly presents us with a woman of great conflict and intelligence who has aged with Audrey but unflinchingly embraced the progressive- she has no desire to keep a portion of the world just for herself because she understands that the world is so much bigger than her. One conversation between Briant and Jones bring the entire conservative rhetoric regarding the value of the working class crashing down before us: Audrey is all for the defense of the poor when she thinks her lefty friend is being unfair to them in a book, but how does she actually treat those with less than her in her life? It is the character who works with words that most aptly demonstrates the value that many conservatives place on symbols over real people.
That is of course, in conjunction with Mark Langham (Matthew), Claudette Clarke (Cheryl) and Emma Wright (Krystyna). Langham and Clarke are the ever loyal gardener and housekeeper that capitalism is ever deserting, while Wright portrays the conservative picture of the “right kind of immigrant”- hard working, white, business oriented, and willing to accept 20 or so years of discrimination if it means that they get to stay in England. The tension between these three demonstrates the great lie that has been told to the working class of so many countries- that immigrants will take the jobs. In truth, it is the rich who have the power to give or take work, and they wield that power with an apologetic grimace and the claim that there is nothing to be done. Though that’s kind of hard to appreciate when your livelihood has been taken away and given to someone who just appeared.
This production is, in a word, brilliant. Taking us through both the deep romance and fatal flaws of British (and in many ways Australian) conservatism, Mike Bartlett has presented the beauty and delusion of clinging to a time that has passed. The world has moved on for good reasons, and trying to keep the world out will only ever result in pain. A layered, detailed, emotional powerhouse of a production; if you want to understand modern politics better, you need to see Albion.
Image Credit: Clare Hawley