Photo by Marc Brenner
Albion – Footnotes
Our Footnotes to the episode on Albion include observations on the echoes of Chekhov, Hidcote garden, being lady of the manor, having a purpose in life, the ‘beholders’ share’, and Claire Foy’s mother.
Echoes of Chekhov
Albion is a play whose setting, subject and scope echo the form of the plays of the great Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov. As we described in the podcast, the play is set in what amounts to a country estate, with an ensemble cast of family characters, as well as a range of servants and local neighbours. As in Chekhov, not a lot happens within the actual action of the play; it consists of merely a series of conversations in the garden, but we learn that a lot happens to the characters off stage before and during the play:
– James has been killed in military service
– Anna has saved his sperm so that she is able to conceive a child after his death
– Katherine and Zara live together, then the relationship fails – it feels doomed much as Nina and Trigorin are in the Seagull
– Audrey has a retail business that specialises in white designer goods and “white customers”, and is struggling in her absence in the country
– Gabriel gives up on his plans for university
Mike Bartlett has talked about being inspired by the pace of Chekhov – that he was able to slow the action down, so that in the pace of everyday conversation the lives of the characters would unfold. He also referred to Chekhov’s ability to represent various points of view without favouring one, as he does so effectively himself in Albion. He shows us multiple facets of his characters, their faults as well as their redeeming qualities. We come away from a Chekhov play and from this one not with a simple view of the world, but touched by the imperfect humanity of the characters and of the world.
Mike Bartlett has acknowledged that the garden of Albion as described in the play as consisting of “originally 31 separate rooms” is based on the Arts and Craft garden at Hidcote in the Cotswolds. Like Albion Hidcote was created by an ex-soldier, Lawrence Johnston, an American who fought with the British in the Boer war and settled with his mother on the Hidcote Manor Estate where he began laying out his famous garden in 1910. The garden is distinctive for its conception of outdoor “rooms” each with a thematic identity, such as the ‘White’ or ‘Fuschia’ gardens, all separated by hedges, hornbeam and stone walls. With an added poignancy Audrey refers in the play to re-creating the original “Red Garden”, which the fictional creator Weatherbury conceived as a tribute to the dead in the First World War, because “it’s about blood”.
As we noted in our conversation, the garden is also clearly a general metaphor for Britain, and as such Audrey’s description of its many different rooms that “can never be appreciated in one view. It had to be experienced as a journey” resonates with the complex composition of the nation’s society and history.
Class and the City vs the Country
Audrey’s vision of her restored garden and its place in the world is one based on assumptions of class privilege. When she arrives as the new owner of the large house and property she behaves very much as the lady of the manor, dispensing economic largesse by employing locals to maintain her house and garden, but with an ill-concealed condescension toward her ‘servants’ and neighbours. She is put out, for example, when Zara invites the young neighbour Gabriel to join the family for tea in the garden – he is after all only the window cleaner. She is then surprised to discover that Gabriel knows the writer Katherine and her novels, no doubt assuming that such a country lad would not be so literate.
Audrey’s assumptions about class are clearly reflected in her views of an archaic social order that they imagine still pertains in the country. She is of course determined to protect the privacy of her property rather than open it up to allow the village fete to be held in her garden. Perhaps such a community event represents a threat to her privilege, as Gabriel describes the village festival as “where the normal social order is turned on its head”, to which Anna replies: “Last thing that she (Audrey) wants”. Her daughter Zara, having lived a privileged urban lifestyle, believes that country folk are “small-minded” and unlikely to be tolerant of alternative sexual orientation for example.
“It’s good to have a purpose”
Audrey and Paul’s neighbour Edward admires Audrey’s strong sense of purpose in her project to recreate the garden. Paul is not convinced that such drive is so necessary: “My life has had no purpose and I’ve been unbelievably happy”. However most of the other characters are concerned that they should have some clear purpose for their lives. Zara for example, having drifted into publishing in London has some notion that she would like to write, and recognises that she needs a more focussed purpose to overcome her ennui. Katherine advises her that “you can’t have purpose without belief”, suggesting that real purpose cannot be manufactured but comes from deep-seated values that impel us to act or pursue goals.
Purpose may also come from necessity. For example, Krystyna the Polish immigrant who has set up her own cleaning company, is driven by economic imperative to envision a plan that will give her longer-term financial security.
The question of how to identify your dreams and to apply the energy to pursue them is also connected to the different view of life one has when young as opposed to when we are older. Katherine in particular sees the light of hope and potential in Zara’s “bright” eyes, untainted by the “mortality, loss or cruelty associated with being alive … You’re young enough not have fully seen the horror of the world”. While such hope may be naive, the wisdom gained with age is inevitably accompanied by “sadness”. In fact by the end of the play there is a sense that Zara has gained a level of maturity through her unhappy affair with Katherine, in much the same way that Nina does in Chekhov’s The Seagull. She has earned a knowledge through suffering in love that seems necessary to live life more truthfully, and which will equip Zara to be a better writer, as it also enabled Nina to become a more substantial actress.
The “beholders’ share”
We talked in our podcast about the different audience responses to the play between when it was first performed in 2017 during the height of the Brexit debate and in 2020 when the fervour of the debate had waned. Mike Bartlett referred to what the audience brings when they come to watch a show as the “beholders’ share’ of the communal artistic experience. At the time of the first production our share would have been hugely informed by our preoccupation with Brexit, such that the line from Audrey describing her garden as “our little piece of the world and we’re allowed to do with it exactly as we like” resonated with political meaning. However Mike has also said that he did not want the play to be about a single political issue, and by the time of the second production and since the play now feels richer, with the many other themes and characters’ personal concerns coming to the fore. In fact the play demonstrates how politics is at heart personal. That our world views come from our personal emotional lives.
The Queen Mother and her daughter
In strict observance of the purpose of a footnote, this is to set the record straight that as stated at end of our episode on Albion, Victoria Hamilton is in fact Claire Foy’s mother only in the fictional world of The Crown, where she plays the Queen Mother to Claire’s Queen Elizabeth. Just for the avoidance of doubt.
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