Is­land men­tal­ity

Bring­ing the past into the fu­ture, de­mys­ti­fy­ing Marx and clas­sic Christie sum up this week’s new pro­duc­tions

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

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

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