The Private Gardens of England

by Tom George Hammond

History is a vile piece of music.  Our last four years have to be dusted down and audited until every event has its linear function.  We are still listlessly auditing Brexit – the late Mr. Brexit, deceased, executed, mouth now gaping in the basket – to comprehend what Brexit means for anyone who still shuts their eyes and thinks of England.

I saw Mike Bartlett’s Albion last week at the Almeida.  Albion is a creative autopsy of Brexit that frames the national crisis in a Chekhovian narrative about a businesswoman who wants to restore an old English garden to its former glory.  As the play is an allegory for Brexit, the garden is also England – so when a character talks about the grand past of the garden, they are also talking about our chintzy portraits of the grand past of England.  The play is a real ‘State of the Nation’ work – the engine of mainstream contemporary drama – and envelops the bourgeoise hierarchies of Chekhov’s country dramas, replacing the bitter Russian winters with half-bashful references to; “completely unnecessary plebiscites”.  Mike Barlett first dined at the Almeida with King Charles III, a campy dismemberment of the ‘State of the Nation’ genre, which imagined the reign of Britain’s next monarch with a Shakespearean friskiness.  Albion is not so playful.  Albion is a serious play for serious people.  There are jokes in it – funny jokes, at least ten proper laughs in the jokes – but there are also dead soldiers and doomed love affairs.  It is a very cautious polemic and it is set in a garden and that garden is also England.  And it is an England that is dying, and an England that never properly existed, and an England that cannot ever be restored.

I am not a serious person and I could not reckon with the play.  I found it languid, although charming, and sometimes too stern.  I thought the perspective was off.  I felt like it was an intellectual exercise in didacticism that lacked any proper anger around the edges.  Brexit feels like part of a tapestry collaging a greater crisis, but Albion siphoned off the particular issue and thrust it under a microscope for a series of familiar notations.  My easy political biases were titillated.  That is glib analysis – a work of art must always be granted its political autonomy – but I could never shake the feeling that Albion was ultimately being too kind.  In a heated moment in the play’s second act, one character scolds another; “Paul you can barely gut a fish”.  That’s my frank review of Albion.  It approached the political with a blunted knife.

It is partly a problem with perspective.  A Brexit play that centres on a middle-class family has to be quite cunningly designed in order to avoid resembling another broadcast from the echo chamber.  There are many crenulations to the modern middle-class identity.  As the world becomes more rotten, more things become gifted to Westerners with a disposable income; bespoke services that keep working class employees in zero hour contracts; cities ‘regenerating’ until every borough is barriered by cost and exclusivity; a network of careers and opportunities offered only to rich young people with the right connections.  A self-aware member of the middle-class might look at their world and want to dismantle it and live in it while it crumbles.  This stage of riches, subscriptions, boutiques, flights, coffee shops, and contrition is ripe for dissection and parody.  Albion pokes at the futility of this bourgeoise guilt somewhat unconvincingly.  Audrey Walters, the business owner obsessed with restoring the play’s garden setting, is a retailer who sells entirely white home furnishings.  It’s a fun distortion of Cath Kidston and the Scandi colour palettes of Habitat and other such places, and the play lands one of its bigger laughs when Audrey’s shop is lampooned by one of her closest friends; “Everything’s white in her shop… even the customers!”.  The character who lands this barb is also wealthy and white – she’s a successful author who wears scarfs – in a show of almost entirely wealthy white characters, and it hit like one of those vacant lines in an award show where the host jokes about the lack of diversity with the nominees. 

The tension between the writer and the business owner powers much of the play.  It’s a dichotomy that should be interesting.  The writer, Catherine Sanchez, is a self-confessed observer of life who offers an arch, crystallised response to contemporary politics.  Audrey is put off by Catherine’s detached philosophising about how things should be but cannot herself approach politics on purely practical or economic terms.  There is an emotional charge to Audrey’s perspective, and an inbuilt sense of self-loathing that she cannot discuss politics on a level that isn’t deeply personal.  The two characters indulge in one of the few explicitly political debates in the play, when Audrey criticises Catherine’s new novel for; “sneering at people”.  Catherine’s novel – which apparently is “selling very well” – is a satire on Brexit voters, but also a “warning” about the tides of fascism that were drawn in after the result; “the rise of something that Weatherbury fought against.  That your son fought against”.  Weatherbury, the former owner of Audrey’s garden (and the namesake of Hardy’s fictional hamlet in Far from the Madding Crowd), and Audrey’s late son, James, were both soldiers; Weatherbury fought in Ypres, while James was a casualty of the War on Terror.  Both are conflicts which are rarely referred to as wars against fascism.  Was 1900s Germany fascist? Or more fascist than 1900s Britain, anyway? Was the First World War not something of a brutal catalyst to the spread of fascism – a War that began while Britain ruled over 25% of the world’s landmass?

Liberal England has to grapple with a twin history of our nation.  We like to remember ourselves as the ‘little Country that could’, the moral, arms-folded bunch that saw off ideological extremity in all directions.  In a moment of clarity like Brexit, a deeper truth emerges; we are a bitter, dying Empire, trying to keep the lights on, trying to cough away our history as oppressors, trying to keep important and mighty through humiliating measures.  Audrey’s love of the past is drenched in patriotic delusions, but Catherine, her primary ideological counterpoint, is not dispensing wisdom so much as a kind of condescending pragmatism.  Perhaps that is the point of Catherine.  Perhaps she is written as condescending.  Perhaps her reasoning is supposed to feel slightly artificial.  Perhaps she was written like David Hare’s Kyra Hollis in Skylight; a liberal, progressive character who is a bit hypocritical and a bit Spartan.  Catherine is a bit hypocritical, a bit condescending, a bit oblivious of her privilege in front of the less privileged characters.  But when she spoke of fascism, there followed a calculated pause, as if the truth had briefly flickered from the darkness.  And I am suspicious of this truth.  It was an uncomfortable invocation that placed England on an undeserved pedestal.

The play begins and ends with Brexit presented as a middle-class tragedy.  The character of Gabriel feels composed to offset the play’s bourgeoise narrative; Gabriel is 19 and wants to be a writer but can barely afford to go to University, so works odd jobs around Audrey’s estate.  His dream career is cordoned off by his financial situation.  He has no hidden money or contacts.  He represents a real story, of how the creative world is now so much in the domain of the middle-classes that it’s very difficult for anyone from a less privileged background to breakthrough.  However, Albion is not Gabriel’s story.  He is mostly a comic foil to the other characters, as a sweet, awkward chap caught in the mix of Audrey’s grand schemes.  He has a Vanya-esque moment where he accidentally discovers his crush, kissing another person.  The audience coo at him when this happens, for he is lovelorn and out of his depth.  In the final act, when his ambitions of leaving for University dissolve, he is given one cutting line; “I’ll make coffee.  Then I’ll manage people making coffee.  That’s probably it.”  But that is it for Gabriel, a character whose lack of advantage may keep him in low-paid service jobs for the best part of his life, and must also give up the stage as soon as his dramatic purpose has been performed.

There is a subplot, too, for the characters who essentially service the Estate; there is an older couple, Cheryl and Matthew, who keep up their manual work on the house and garden in spite of their age – both are in their late 60s but are not able to consider retirement – and are now threatened by the presence of Krystyna, a younger and more efficient worker from Poland (it really is quite a busy play).  It’s a very precise subplot, that again offers some kind of insight into how the tensions between different generations of the working class are exploited by their middle-class employers.  But Audrey, the callous paymaster, is also a stand-in for the wealthy Leave voter, which, for a play performed in a fashionable Islington theatre, makes her the other to the majority of Albion’s audience.  There was scope for something more biting here, if the callous paymaster had been a wealthy Remainer instead – someone who sings of progressivism but still mistreats their employers behind closed doors.  That might have said something to the audience of a polemic about their own lives, which is, or should be, the purpose of a polemic.  But it is what it is, a not particularly generous subplot, a bit of proletariat icing, like a servant in an Ibsen play who gets one good scene.  Like Gabriel, Cheryl and Krystyna and Matthew get a bit lost in the journey, occasionally tumbling out as a reminder of the less privileged. 

It isn’t their play.  It’s Audrey’s play.  Victoria Hamilton plays the role as if on a harp; she is exuberantly nasty, funny, difficult, aggressive, sad, and wanting.  She carries Albion through its three-hour runtime (a very busy play indeed) as a constantly infuriating, constantly sympathetic presence.  The performance is masterful, the character indulgent.  Audrey shoulders the tragedy of Brexit and the tragedy of England.  She is there to explain the Leave voter to the Remain side; she is a stand-in for patriots and denialists and people who read the Daily Mail.  She only remembers the garden, or England, for its glorious past.  She pursues her renovation project even though it is financially inadvisable (wink), even though it causes tension between her and her London-based daughter (double wink), even though it isolates the garden from her surrounding community (violent winking and nodding), even though the renovations are on such an unimaginable scale that no one but her believes that the restoration could ever be fully achieved (winking, nodding, drooling, slamming my hands into my chair, tongue lashing about with dramaturgical glee).  And the project ruins her.  She ends the play, her project having fallen apart, weeping at the thought of leaving the land.  It is a sad ending.  It’s also a bit neat.  A bit look at where the dream got her.  A bit Brexit is a failure, and this is how it fails.  Brexit is a failure, but it will not fail on Audrey.  It is not her tragedy in the real world.

Because in the real world, when Brexit does nothing good for England, when England is not restored, the wealthy Leave voter will not face ruin or humiliation.  They are smash and grabbers, not tragic figureheads of an ideological putsch.  It is not their tragedy.  It is Gabriel’s tragedy, Krystyna’s tragedy, Chery and Matthew’s tragedy; it is a tragedy of class, in an era of late-capitalist anger has somehow been weaponised by the cynical paymaster.  I wanted someone to rush in, grab the audience by its collar and scream that, for all our well-placed objections to Brexit, the world is still dying, the working class are still outside, and we are still at the theatre watching something that wants us to sit still.