Rarely has so baggy a play burned so bright. Albion is one of playwright Mike Bartlett’s many swerves. He startled the stage in 2014 with the formal blank-verse daring and real subversion of King Charles III. He has shaken the screen with the twists of Doctor Foster. He arrives always with new content seen from an unexpected angle.
The title of his new play proclaims its intent. This is a big look at the nation; its William Blake overtones suggest a sly glance at another England play, Jerusalem. Its setting, a garden, declares its quizzing of tradition, and lets in a reference to Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. It also affords one of the glories of the evening: Miriam Buether’s design fills the horseshoe-shaped stage with grass and a vivid border of roses and dahlias. Striking, incidentally, that two of the most richly inventive designers at work today – Buether and Hildegard Bechtler – should be women born in Germany.
So glowing is the horticultural conjuring in Rupert Goold’s absorbing production that it tilts the play’s arguments about tradition and innovation. Even those – like me – sceptical about soil romanticism are likely to be allured by the determination of the central character to remake an ancient garden, first established in honour of the war dead, in memory of her own soldier son. Victoria Hamilton is magnetic as the driven businesswoman who bulldozes her way over everyone’s feelings: “Did you write it very quickly?” she asks her best friend about her latest novel. She is ramrod tight but quivering with fervour. It is hard to know whether the shine in her eyes is the glint of steel or the glimmer of tears.
Hamilton is surrounded by some first-rate performances. Helen Schlesinger is subtly cool as the novelist. Margot Leicester is terrific – with martyred walk and quavering ironies – as an ageing retainer supplanted by an enterprising Polish worker. And Charlotte Hope is a lovely discovery as Hamilton’s daughter. She trembles into vivacity as she falls in love with an older woman. The silent ardour between her and her lover is beautifully directed, cutting across political argument.
There is sketchiness and bulging: the attempt is to make this a truly expansive picture of Britain on the brink of Brexit. Some absurdity, too: no woman should be obliged to run around in the rain rubbing earth – and possibly cremated ashes – into her groin. Absurdity, though, is the price of a just ambition.
A Boy’s Best Friend Is His Mother; The Drunkard’s Lone Child – the most ingenious novelty in Dominic Dromgoole’s production of A Woman of No Importance is its interspersing of Oscar Wilde’s tragicomedy with adorable 19th-century songs. Between scenes, underneath the proscenium arch (this is theatre totally in period), actors appear in front of a velvet curtain with fiddle, guitars and clarinet. The singer, the bewitching Anne Reid, casts doleful eyes to heaven, skittishly tapping on a tambourine. In bringing to life this tear-stained, popular culture, Dromgoole defuses some of Wilde’s melodrama and makes the meat of his drama look the more advanced. Here is a rallying cry for women’s rights: a blow against the double moral standard.
The play needs help. It is a peculiar thing: beginning with quiverfuls of aphorisms, moving through improbable confrontation, concluding with brave defiance. Eve Best plays, very finely, a betrayed woman: you can tell she bin wronged because she wears her hair wildly down. Abandoned by her lover 20 years ago, she has passed herself off to her son and the world as a widow. Suddenly meeting her old cad, she is forced to reveal the truth.
Best has had an inspiration about this character. Just when you would expect laceration and indignation, she flashes out with a sense of comedy. When her son suggests that he persuade the bounder to marry her, she is startled into laughter by his blindness to her feelings. Harry Lister Smith is absolutely right as the son, gauche and full of zeal. There is lovely petit-point line work from Emma Fielding as a sharp-tongued sophisticate, and from Eleanor Bron who, in a clever variation on the mother-son theme, fusses around her husband as if he were a toddler. But Dominic Rowan is stilted as the rotter, and Crystal Clarke cannot bring the uninflected truth-telling of a pure young girl to convincing life.
This is the first of Dromgoole’s Wilde season, featuring his new theatre company, Classic Spring, set up to celebrate proscenium arch theatre. Dromgoole (former artistic director of the unarched Globe) has given himself a difficult task with this, not the peak of the dramatist’s work. But he has thrown out an intriguing challenge to the modern stage.
It is hard to believe that A Woman of No Importance was written five years after The Lady from the Sea. Ibsen’s play also has at its centre the unequal treatment of men and women, yet it belongs to a different age. It breathes the air of the ocean not of the drawing room. Actually, its very freewheeling daring, the intensity of debate that can make the Norwegian sound like DH Lawrence’s godfather, brings its own problems. It can be simply an extravagant curio; I have often admired it without being convinced.
Yet Elinor Cook’s beautiful new version is transporting. Literally, as she has moved the action to the Caribbean of the 1950s, where the expat women are stifled by polite routines and their inability to live up to paradise. Tom Scutt’s playful design buries a miniature human world – small houses, a yacht, palm trees – at the bottom of a lake. There is rather too much of people wading through its water, but the picture of drowned hope, loomed over by ugly carp, is unforgettable.
As the sea lady, Nikki Amuka-Bird is radiant and terrified. Her plight – she is haunted by an old lover who comes back, as if from death, to claim her from her husband – struck me for the first time as truly psychologically penetrating rather than finger-waggingly symbolic. For the first time, too, as being one aspect of a complicated mesh: a real exploration of marriage as trap and equal love as release. Helena Wilson is particularly delicate (in pedal pushers) as the brainbox held back by her fear of failure – and by being surrounded by men who want women to be “duller, weaker versions of themselves”. Helped by the restrained precision of Finbar Lynch and Tom McKay, the play looks as intricately feminist as The Doll’s House.
This is Kwame Kwei-Armah’s first production since being named new artistic director of the Young Vic, which has done so much to vivify audience’s response to classic works. It makes me look forward eagerly to his reign.
Star ratings (out of 5)
A Woman of No Importance ★★★
The Lady from the Sea ★★★★
• Albion is at the Almeida, London, until 24 Nov; A Woman on No Importance is at the Vaudeville, London until 30 Dec; The Lady from the Sea is at the Donmar Warehouse, London, until 2 Dec