On Theatre

Blessed plot – or maybe not

“Albion” takes up the challenge of the moving goalposts of Brexit and social and economic fragmentation, says Anne McElvoy

“This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,/ This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars . . .This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.” Not many points if you recognise John of Gaunt’s famous speech from Richard II. It is theatre’s industry-standard evocation of theatrical Englishness in its mixture of pride, inspiration and mannered exceptionalism. You can play it straight or artfully deconstruct it — but the lure of Englishness on the stage remains a powerful force.

That theme has re-emerged as national identities and their implications have become more fraught in recent years. “You can’t write a play about England that anyone wants to go and see, because it’s a pamphlet,” as Jez Butterworth wisely notes. He then gave us an epoch-defining play about change, continuity and frustration, channelled through the drug-addled pied piper of Johnny Byron in Jerusalem.

That now lies in the pre-Brexit mists of time. Albion, by Mike Bartlett at Islington’s Almeida, is directed by Rupert Goold and takes up the challenge of a play which encompasses the moving goalposts of Brexit, social and economic fragmentation — with a paradoxically British sense that we are all in it together, until we’re suddenly not.

It is a delve into what it means to be attached to the “blessed plot” when it comes with the hefty price tag of a country house which changes hands at the behest of economic headwinds and a fissiparous family with a matriarch (Victoria Hamilton) as Audrey, a steely entrepreneur who controls her country environment, family and friends with all the force of a boardroom Svengali.

It would not take a theatrical metal detector to discern in Audrey the legacy of Caryl Churchill’s magisterially brittle Marlene in Top Girls. Both bear the same mix of truth-telling. Marlene was a leftie incarnation of Thatcherite Britain’s selfish drives, but thoroughly recognisable in the stiletto-wearing Chardonnay-swilling, skin-deep corporate feminism. Barlett’s chatelaine Audrey is a 2020 update — Churchill 3.0 — the moneyed new owner of a blessed plot of rural England, brusquely dispensing with her shuffling cleaner Cheryl (Margot Leicester) in favour of a hyper-efficient Polish replacement who sounds a lot like herself.

Re-emerging in early 2020, there are inevitable echoes of Brexit, a subject in which even the most talented contemporary stage writers display an entire legful of Kryptonite. We get one clash of ideas between Audrey and her university friend-turned star author Katherine (Helen Schlesinger), who is so militantly pro-Remain that she channels her ire into a grim satire on Brexiteers as small-minded proto-fascists.

This moment fizzles for one obvious reason. To write a plausible, not-bonkers Brexit character, you have to say something more substantial than that snotty Remoaner is annoying. In fairness, Bartlett wants to write a drama that rises above Brexit wars to address a deeper question: what is the attachment to land and tradition, beyond the ability to buy a posh house and garden — and what does belonging mean without community? 

All this said, theatre is about gut instinct and Bartlett is an inspired loose cannon on Englishness. He gets a lot right that more moderate souls get wrong, predicting a possible demise of the monarchy in the acid-bath of ambition and inter-warring spouses in King Charles III, which we thought was satire and turned out to be prophetic about the royals. Dr Foster was steamy prime-time TV, but its dormitory town Parminster, with its designer houses and erotic undertow, was a modern incarnation of Trollope — a story and a place of our times.

We might wish that playwrights did not feel the urge to pull all of their “now” themes into one play. Improbable intra-generational lesbian affair in Albion? Check. The Archers meets D.H. Lawrence in a thwarted romance between country lad and sophisticated but messed-up West London girl? Double check.

We know the plot and it is not quite so imaginatively blessed as the writer thinks. Englishness, in this account, is a backward-looking obsession, with a veneer of romanticism. But is this enough to account for a national mood which combines anti-globalising instincts with a renewed desire for sovereignty? The sub-plot is that the ghosts of English militarism rise from 1914 to Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan. But is this as simple as the overreach suggested — or a more nuanced desire for a country with a colonial past and vaguely competent armed forces to make its mark in a chaotic wold?

I would love to see a writer as cogent and witty as Bartlett evolve his understanding of Englishness in its paradoxes to reflect more than the imaginative norms of metropolitan London. Albion is an uneasy play because it senses what that potential might mean for the stage. Then it decides it would rather not face the consequences and does the same old play, all over again. What a waste, as that brilliantly rogueish master of English pop sentiment, Ian Dury remarked — what a waste.

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