ALBION - New Ghosts Theatre Company & Seymour Centre (NSW)
Written by Mike Bartlett, Directed by Lucy Clements
Reviewed by Juliana Payne
Until 13 August 2022 TICKETS: Preview $33 / Full $49 / Concession $39 / Under 35, Group 8+ $35
Watching Albion I was reminded of a Chekov meme doing the rounds online not long ago – an old photo of Anton wearing his round glasses lounging on a bench, captioned with “It’s a nice day. I don’t know whether to have a cup of tea or kill myself”. Mike Bartlett’s play pays wonderful homage to The Cherry Orchard in form, structure and character, to bring current social and political themes to life. He deals in the zeitgeist, as demonstrated brilliantly in his earlier Sydney Theatre Company play King Charles III (2015). In Albion, Bartlett renders a dramatic and social arc from Mrs Thatcher to Brexit via a couple of generations of a family and their ‘staff’ (read: ‘servants’). Building on the oft-quoted and oft-misunderstood quip from Mrs Thatcher that “there is no such thing as society but there are individuals”, Mike Bartlett understands that families comprise a nation, and portrays the national angst in a single domestic setting. And like many nations, the matriarch of this family has never gotten over the promise of empire and the myth of self-sufficiency based on the exploitation and abuse of colonies. This is the epitome of the UK’s politics in the Brexit era, and a salient message for Australia.
The play revolves around the mother Audrey (played by Joanna Briant), a family figurehead who just bulldozes people to get what they want without any regard for others. She is a strident opinionated person - representative of a certain type we all unfortunately encounter all too often, and who has even more unfortunately become bolder and louder under cover of social media, and recently using the pandemic as a runway from which to launch their particular brand of mythical self-sufficiency. This type of person seems to have no awareness of the colonial history and tragedy that underpins their own perception of their success, and Audrey resents everyone in her family and staff who do not agree with her.
(C) Clare Hawley
The actors themselves come from a cross section of post-colonial countries. Joanna Briant in the lead role carried the bulk of the emotional and dramatic arc as well as most of the text, and Anna Angharad offset this very evocatively as her counterpoint. The rest of the cast all worked well to render Mike Bartlett’s dense dialogue engagingly. They all aptly brought the dry Chekovian wit to relieve the inevitable tragedy.
Production designer Monique Langford made effective use of the small Reginald space. The spongy bright square of green grass was a striking symbol of both England’s green and pleasant land and the Australian suburban obsession with lush front lawns. The thin band of soil around the edge of the stage was a constant focus for the characters who couldn’t resist digging their hands in, to grasp,clutch and own the land for their own reasons. The solid oak tree in the corner seemed also to draw the characters toward it, and the stark leafless branches dominating the stage were a jarring reminder of loss and grief. The lighting by Kate Baldwin carried us through the seasonal structure which underscored the emotional arc from early hopes and dreams to a stark end state of shattered loss and desperation.
Let us watch this play and heed the lesson so that we move forward.
Director Lucy Clements kept the flow and movement of characters fairly dynamic to try and offset some of the chunky speeches. The script is substantial, with an urgency which informs and fills the characters’ speeches to the brim with ideas, conflicts, and human contradictions. This verges on didactic at times but then that’s what allegory is all about. A surprising and lively surreal fantasy scene halfway through had the audience gasping.
Sound designer Samantha Cheng chose well to bookend the two acts with classic Elgar musical pieces, as he was a composer deeply embedded in - and representative of - the height of the British Empire.
Before seeing it, I wondered about the point of Albion for Australian audiences. There are, however, sharp political and social parallels for this country. If the English haven’t yet come to terms with the weight of their past sins of Empire, then neither has white Australia come close to acknowledging and making reparations for its own colonial ravages which continue to this day. Like Audrey in Albion, those who invoke the ANZAC and other colonial origin myths at the expense of truth are rarely doing this for unselfish reasons. As I write this, Prime Minister Albanese is giving a speech about the referendum on the Voice to Parliament for First Nations peoples. Let us watch this play and heed the lesson so that we move forward – and so we don’t have to write plays like this for Australia.
Albion plays at the Seymour Centre until Saturday August 13. Tickets can be booked here.
DATES: Wednesday 27th July – Saturday 13th August TIMES: Tuesday – Saturday at 7:30pm; Saturdays at 1:30pm; Thursday 28 July at 1:30pm LOCATION: Seymour Centre, Corner City Rd and Cleveland St, Chippendale BOOKINGS: https://www.seymourcentre.com/event/albion/ or (02) 9061 5344 TICKETS: Preview $33 / Full $49 / Concession $39 / Under 35, Group 8+ $35
WRITER Mike Bartlett DIRECTOR Lucy Clements PRODUCERS Jane Angharad & James Smithers PRODUCTION DESIGNER Monique Langford SOUND DESIGNER Samantha Cheng STAGE MANAGER Milly Grindrod PRODUCTION MANAGER Farlie Goodwin CAST Jane Angharad, Joanna Briant, Claudette Clarke, Alec Ebert, Noel Hodda, Deborah Jones, Charles Mayer, Rhiaan Marquez, James Smithers & Emma Wright UNDERSTUDIES Kevin Batliwala, John Grinston & Lynda Leavers