Saturday 25 November 2017

Albion at the Almeida, or, Time for a Moratorium on State of the Nation Plays

Note: A review of the matinee on Saturday 18th November 2017.

Mike Bartlett's new play is anxious to tell us about the state of England. So anxious that he hammers the point home in the title and on several other occasions in the body of the play. England, in this instance, is like a garden. A garden in which, it seems, a lot of pretty unpleasant people are trapped with each other. Unfortunately, after what felt a pretty long three hours, I was convinced neither that this was an illuminating representation of England, nor in these individual characters and their relationships.

Bartlett's premise is that Audrey Walters (Victoria Hamilton), a successful businesswoman, has left her London life and bought a run down mansion with extensive garden somewhere rural (possibly the precise location is mentioned but it didn't stick in my mind). The house was previously owned by a great uncle, who constructed a massive and allegedly pioneering landscape garden. Now that I reflect on this it seems to me something is awry with the chronology because the relative in question is supposed to construct at least some of the garden on his return from World War One, but I feel sure that the history of landscape gardening goes back rather further than that. Despite some laboured expository passages on the matter quite why the garden was so significant never really comes into focus. The same insufficiency of illumination applies to Audrey's decisions first to buy the house and reconstruct the garden and by the end to abandon the whole business.

Part of the problem is an over-abundance of plot which means none of the strands have sufficient space and some are especially underwritten. An unconvincing lesbian relationship starts out of nowhere in the middle of Act 1, up to this point the only hint I'd noticed regarding the sexuality of one of them, Audrey's daughter, was her flirting with a passing village boy. The interracial relationship, which gives the play its only non-white character, feels contrived. Bartlett also cannot resist heavy handed commentary on such matters as Brexit, class, immigration, dependence on screens while failing to find anything new or illuminating to say about any of these matters. It is instructive to compare the failure here with Butterworth's Ferryman earlier this year – the latter is a play of similar length, even larger ensemble, and deep historical concerns which succeeds on just about every level as Albion fails to do.

As the afternoon grinds on the problem of under-drawn characters becomes compounded by increasing holes in plot and motivation. It's all very well, as I've said on other occasions, to retain ambiguity but you have then to give your characters convincing depth. In other words, I think the viewer needs to believe that the performer has in their head a conception of motivation which is driving their actions even if I can't quite work it out myself. I simply did not believe it in most of these cases. Worse, the play gets into that dangerous territory where it becomes difficult to avoid the view that characters one has hitherto been led to assume have a certain intelligence are actually stupid. To give just two examples there's the inexplicable inability of Zara (Charlotte Hope) to realise that her mother has interfered in her burgeoning relationship, and the unconvincing way in which Zara and Paul (Nicholas Rowe) simply give way to what struck me as Audrey's increasingly mad behaviour at the end. One might also note here that it becomes difficult by this point to imagine Audrey as a successful businesswoman. My fundamental problem though was that the play simply failed to make me care about any of the protagonists. Once or twice individual performers transcended its limitations (most notably Helen Schlesinger) but none are able to do so with sufficient consistency.

Rupert Goold turns in a surprisingly restrained piece of direction. Once again in his tenure the standard layout of the Almeida is abandoned, this time for something approaching theatre in the round. I think we're supposed to think of these people as trapped by this garden (a nice enough piece of design by Miriam Buether), but there are just too many exits from it for that to really work, and I found I never quite believed in the big estate supposedly off-stage. Thinking over it afterwards my mind went back to the Donmar's superlative production of The Chalk Garden. Gardening is central to that play in a far more convincing and powerful way than it is here. Then we barely saw the garden at all, but it was powerfully there. Good does try for the power of the intimate encounter, the look, the gesture, but he just can't quite find it. Three times he gives way to what I suspect is his more natural approach of greater on-stage activity – thus we have two gardening montages (whose main effect is to further slow down the action) and a thunderstorm dance (one of those occasions when strong emotion would be more powerful if not over-egged in the staging). There's fine work on the lighting front from Neil Austin and an intrusive soundtrack ranging from overly symbolic English pastorale to a contemporary number whose lyrics caused this listener to raise an eyebrow.

In sum this is yet another in what has been an ineffectively over-explored genre this year – the state of the British nation play. It is, in my view, definitely time to give this a rest. After the respite of the fine Ink, this is another disappointing show of the Goold Almeida era.

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