Bringing the past into the future, demystifying Marx and classic Christie sum up this week’s new productions
Michael Billington previews Albion and Young Marx
WHAT kind of country are we? One wedded to romantic dreams of the past or one capable of adapting to the future? That is one of many questions resounding through Mike Bartlett’s magnificent new play, Albion, at London’s Almeida. Like his King Charles III, it’s directed by Rupert Goold and, like its predecessor, it seems obsessed by the state of the nation.
The setting is highly seductive: a Cotswolds country garden that, in Miriam Buether’s lush design, changes before our eyes. Its owner is a go-getting businesswoman, Audrey, who has bought the house she knew as a child and is determined to restore the ruined garden to its former glory. She embodies the idea of an ‘English Protestant morality based on hard work’. The only problem is that Audrey, who has lost her son in an overseas war, tends to alienate those around her.
Since the garden is called Albion, it clearly carries symbolic weight. If pressed to pin down the play’s meaning, I’d suggest it’s that one can’t simply re-create the past, but that one has to absorb it in rebuilding the future. That, however, is to simplify a play the delight of which lies in its multiple contradictions.
You see that in Victoria Hamilton’s superb performance as Audrey: one minute she’s a bossy figure seeking to organise Nature the way she does people; at other times, you realise
she’s a grieving mother filled with latent goodness. It’s Miss Hamilton’s capacity to switch in a second from vainglory to vulnerability that gives the play its emotional drive.
As with most garden-based plays, from Shaw’s Heartbreak House to N. C. Hunter’s recently revived A Day by the Sea (Theatre, October 19), the influence of Chekhov is inescapable. Audrey’s neglected daughter, as well as her oldest friend, a famous novelist, and a 19-year-old neighbour become the equivalents of Nina, Trigorin and Konstantin in The Seagull. Without giving too much away, there are even echoes of The Cherry Orchard. The one false note comes at the end of the second act when one character goes berserk in a torrential rainstorm, but, otherwise, this is a beautifully observed play rich in metaphorical meaning. There are outstanding performances from Helen Schlesinger as the sexually ambivalent novelist, Charlotte Hope as Audrey’s daughter Zara and Margot Leicester as a superannuated cleaner
steeped in surly resentment. For me, this belongs with Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman as one of the best new plays of the year.
I had high hopes for Young Marx by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, but, if I’m honest, it’s the venue, brainchild of Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr, that’s the star as much as the play. The Bridge, built on the South Bank for just over £12 million, is an instantly attractive building. The 900-seat auditorium is intimate and flexible — for the next show, Julius Caesar, a platform will jut into the audience—and the foyer, well stocked with bars, is roomy and inviting.
The play is good, but leaves you wondering whether farce is the ideal form to encapsulate the career of the young Karl Marx. The setting is Soho in 1850, when Marx was a penurious 32-year-old German-jewish exile living in cramped Dean Street quarters with his aristocratic wife, their maid and a growing family.
The play sets out to demystify Marx and it’s fascinating to see the future analyst of capitalist contradictions as a harum-scarum young man hounded by creditors and the police and at odds with his fellow revolutionaries, but there’s a revealing moment when his friend, Engels, who recorded the plight of the Mancunian poor, tells Marx: ‘I write down what I see, I’m a beta plus. You’re an alpha, a bona fide genius.’
I’d have liked more evidence of that genius, but, even without that, there are beguiling performances from Rory Kinnear as the madcap Marx, Oliver Chris as Engels and Laura Elphinstone as the devoted maid. It is, however, the beauty of the Bridge that makes the evening work.
The theatre is also the star in the revival of Witness for the Prosecution in the council chamber of London’s County Hall. This extravagant piece of 20th-century baroque is William Dudley’s inspired choice of setting for Lucy Bailey’s production of Agatha Christie’s 1953 courtroom drama.
The big questions are whether the hapless Leonard Vole is guilty of murdering a rich old lady and why his German refugee wife suddenly turns against him. Even if the plot is familiar from a recent TV adaptation and a famous Billy Wilder film, it gets a new lease of life in a debating chamber that acts as a convincing stand-in for the Old Bailey.
David Yelland and Philip Franks as the opposing counsels, Jack Mcmullen as Vole and Catherine Steadman as his treacherous spouse are also first-rate in a piece that, while not quite another stateof-the-nation play, offers a fascinating snapshot of a class-bound, repressed 1950s England.
Albion until November 24 (020 –7359 4404); Young Marx until December 31 (0843 208 1846); Witness for the Prosecution until March 11 (0844 815 7141)
Above: Charlotte Hope as Zara in the seductive garden set of Albion. Below: Oliver Chris and Rory Kinnear in Young Marx
Witness for the Prosecution at London’s County Hall