Isn’t “put upon” a funny expression? To be put upon: imposed on, treated badly, particularly by someone who’s taking the piss out of your own good nature. It’s funny because it’s so passively descriptive; it doesn’t point towards who’s responsible for the putting, who’s doing this unfair burdening or taking advantage. It allows you to skip neatly over that part.
Nearly every character in Mike Bartlett’s Albion could, rightfully so or not, be described as extremely put upon. Using the kind of tasteful tones as Neil Austin’s gently autumnal lighting, Bartlett shades in the ways his characters assume they’re the most hard done by. Possibly of anyone, ever. This is Albion’s return to the Almeida two years after its debut in 2017, again directed by Rupert Goold, and we have now left the EU, so this is all about as timely as it gets. State-of-the-put-upon-nation?
Victoria Hamilton’s Audrey is a successful upper class businesswoman who packs in her Muswell Hill residence for a countryside one she remembers from her childhood. It has a historically important, now gone-to-ruin garden. Audrey uproots her family to restore it, as a tribute to not only a tradition of dead soldiers linked with it, but also to an impossible vision she has of her country. Miriam Buether’s bucolic set makes this as tangible as possible, but just out of the audience’s reach beyond a low brick wall: real-looking English roses, manicured lawn, and towering tree.
Albion is a collection of a few, long moments between characters passing through the “red garden”, clashing over the local or personal traditions they each believe should be upkept. Audrey’s daughter Zara (Daisy Edgar-Jones) feels put upon that this move means suspending her friends and prospects of publishing internships. Katherine (Helen Schlesinger), a glamorous novelist friend of Audrey’s, upsets things further with an inappropriate romantic entanglement and some world-weary, leftist-but-snobbish observations. Audrey’s husband Paul (Nicholas Rowe) is one of the few not put upon in the slightest – he’s an unperturbed and droll dandy, loved by Audrey precisely for being so boring.
We don’t immediately realise that Anna (Angel Coulby) isn’t employed by the family; she’s actually the grief-wrecked partner of James, Audrey’s son, killed two years prior. Audrey treats her with much the same dismissive attitude as the working class characters receive from her and her family on occasions. Though Bartlett takes lovely care to illustrate how every character relates to every other, there’s little time for how dirty Zara does the creative, hopeful garden hand Gabriel (Dónal Finn). Edyta Budnik’s straight-talking Krystyna remains a hard-working Polish stereotype, useful for demonstrating the English characters’ prejudices and fears. She also escapes being put upon.
I can’t speak interestingly to the influences of Brexit or Chekhov here, but I do think Albion presents an impressively upsetting look at one of the faces of fascism. Everyone else’s griefs, desires and struggles are subordinate to Audrey’s, and her unhealthy, conservative and fantastic mission. What work has she put into this garden herself? What claim does she have to it, besides that she had the money to buy it? A play doesn’t require a croquet mallet in it in order to demonstrate its characters’ divorce from labour, but it doesn’t hurt this one.
Bartlett’s many and well-judged layers are mostly served well by Goold’s production, which does tend towards ham at points. It flirts unconvincingly with magical realism, and I wish the long transitions which see the garden manually transformed by the company made more than just practical sense – most of these characters don’t contribute to the labour this garden needs, so helping in these transitions makes for an odd disconnect. Bland contemporary music choices for transitions, too – and for an awkwardly long, soaked expression of grief for Coulby’s Anna – bulldoze the writing’s subtlety.
Perhaps embarrassingly, I’m fond of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, two ancestors to Albion beyond naming convention. It’s not quite the same with Albion, perhaps because the older two plays leave me feeling something, strongly: hope, I think, which seems absent at the close of Albion. I wonder if this reflects Bartlett’s own feeling of lacking hope or answers to our political, nationwide mess, but that’s presuming. Maybe it’s simply that I have a higher tolerance for the kind of “conservative with a small c” Stoppard is than the “Capitalism is the least worst option” of Bartlett, which seems to belie a lack of conviction. I think of this, anyway, when I feel little as Albion ends.
But Hamilton’s Audrey is captivating and hilarious, that particular well-off mix of frightfully polite and unbelievably rude. Sometimes she emphasises a single word (like “vital”) with such violence it’s as if she draws in all the air from around her in one go. She’s a frantic fortress of whiteness and success, wielding her hurt against anyone to get what she thinks she’s owed: a jilted spiritual inheritance, a continuous communion with the past. This surety of what she’s entitled to is what makes her so put upon; no-one puts anywhere near as much upon Audrey as she does herself.