Cast your mind back to 2017. You know, the year that was one of the worst in recent memory until 2020 hit. The year that the UK was stuck dealing with the fallout from the Brexit referendum, while the orange menace took office in the US. A year in which the words ‘coronavirus’ and ‘Ukraine’ were rarely seen in the news, along with ‘inflation’. In short, 2017 was a more innocent time, as horrific as that is to say. Well, 2017 was the year that Mike Bartlett’s brilliant play Albion premiered in London, dissecting the state of Britain through the metaphor of a garden.
In 2022, Albion has moved to the far side of the world and is premiering at Sydney’s Seymour Centre. It’s no longer the timely “state of the nation” examination of the rise of nationalism and the myths around Brexit, but it remains a searing tale of obsession that probes the British psyche in all its charming eccentricities and deep pain.
Audrey (a brilliant leading performance by Joanna Briant) has bought a country house with a large, historic garden in need of repair. Turning her back on her business empire in London, she dedicates her time and her wealth to restoring the garden to its former glory; steamrolling over the local community, along with her family and friends in the process. But reclaiming past triumphs is tricky work, and one person’s “former glory” is another person’s “suppression” and “pain”. Maybe Audrey’s vision for the garden is founded on a false premise?
This new Australian production delivers the text with zest and power, bringing the play’s vivid imagery to life. Briant gives us a wonderfully complex Audrey; lovable and loathable, charming and cold, blunt and blundering. She’s a smiling Thatcher-like figure on a small scale. It’s the kind of meaty role an actress can really play with and Briant’s Audrey is a triumph of humanity with all its foibles. She is perfectly paired with her placid and adoring husband Paul (Charles Mayer), a man who revels in his own lack of any ambition or drive. They are juxtaposed with a group of locals who have worked in the house and garden for years (fine performances from Claudette Clark, Mark Langham, and James Smithers). One of the best performances of the show comes from Emma Wright as Krystyna, a young Polish cleaner/entrepreneur in a note-perfect supporting role, something so easy to overlook, but whose impact is strongly felt.
Sadly the play’s pivotal queer romance feels lacking. While the repercussions of the blooming lesbian relationship are visceral, there’s a gaping lack of on stage chemistry, some of the hefty dialogue feels forced, and the accents wavered on the night I saw the play, in the only bum note of the evening.
Mike Bartlett is one of the UK’s finest writers working today, and Albion is one of his best plays. The comparisons to The Cherry Orchard and Arcadia are well-earned, both for the rural setting and the beautiful complexity of the characters within it. His grasp of the British people is strong and richly insightful, as proven by his TV series Doctor Foster, his Shakespearean high-concept King Charles III, and his gay drama Cock. Audrey’s rose-coloured concept of Britain—full of familiar narratives—can’t hold up against the harsh truths. All the bunting in the world can’t mend a nation in pain or stop it from changing.
By Chad Armstrong
Albion plays at Sydney’s Seymour Centre until Saturday, August 13th, 2022. Click here for tickets and more info.
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