LONDON — “Are you guys anything anymore?” the American comedian Kathy Griffin asked from the stage of the Palladium Theater here on Friday night. “I don’t know what to call you. Blokes?”
Ms. Griffin, whose baiting of the sitting president of the United States has made her all but unemployable in her home country, had just referred to her audience as Brits before backtracking. After all, two nights earlier, in Dublin, she had committed the faux pas of calling that city a part of the United Kingdom and been booed.
But she had a point that extended beyond her uncharacteristic reluctance to offend. As Britain hovers on the brink of separation from the European Union, its sense of itself — as a place, as a people, as a culture — has seldom seemed less certain.
Signifiers and symbols that have long shouted “Forever England” are the subject of bewildered and fractious debate this cold and sunless November.
So it felt fitting that I should devote the first Saturday of my visit here to watching the English contemplating the end of England in a distinctly English way. That meant six (yes, six) hours of sceptered-isle navel gazing courtesy of two fecund and inventive young British playwrights, James Graham and Mike Bartlett.Continue reading the main story
This may sound like a joyless prospect. But it’s amazing how quickly the traffic of the stage passes when you’re in the hands of expert craftsmen.
Neither Mr. Graham’s “Labour of Love” (at the Noël Coward Theater in the West End) nor Mr. Bartlett’s “Albion” (at the Almeida in Islington) is likely to be the work for which either dramatist will be best remembered. But seen at a moment in which the center of a classically self-contained world no longer seems to be holding, these fraught works exude a paradoxical reassurance.
There is warming solace, after all, in people gathering to hear their collective identity crisis discussed in such well-spoken terms. (This is true even for uneasy Americans like me, whose own viciously conflicted nation has been keeping them awake at nights.)
Theatergoers here will recognize such plays as part of a long tradition of literary introspection. It is one that stretches back to at least the days of that other Queen Elizabeth, when Shakespeare’s characters tear out their hair over their imperiled country’s divisions, and has been sustained by 20th- and 21st-century writers including John Osborne, David Hare and Caryl Churchill.
What’s more, though their subjects may be absolutely of the moment, “Labour of Love,” an anxious comedy, and “Albion,” a state-of-the-nation drama, are both old-fashioned in form. This is not necessarily to be expected of either of their creators.
Mr. Bartlett is the author of the future Shakespearean history play “King Charles III”; Mr. Graham wrote the interactive “Privacy,” about reality-fracturing practices in the age of surveillance. Despite a few postmodern flourishes and some teasing structural game playing, their latest offerings are unlikely to disconcert habitual watchers of “Masterpiece” television.
Directed by Jeremy Herrin (“Wolf Hall,” “People, Places & Things”), “Labour of Love” is a detailed examination of the history of the British Labour Party. But wait. It is also a spirited battle-of-the-sexes comedy in the vein of “Much Ado About Nothing” and the films that pitted Katharine Hepburn against Spencer Tracy.
In this case, though, the salt-of-the-earth Tracy character is a woman, Jean Whittaker, a longtime stalwart of the local party in a working-class mining town. The patrician Hepburn type is a rising politician, with a public school accent and impeccably tailored suits.
That’s David Lyons (a top-form Martin Freeman, of “Sherlock” fame). He has been delivered, more or less by central party fiat, into a “safe seat” in the constituency where Jean (the wonderful Tamsin Greig) has worked as the office manager for the outgoing member of Parliament (who happens to be her husband). She has no intention of sticking around.
But of course she does, and leftist Old Labour (think Tony Benn) butts heads with centrist New Labour (think Tony Blair), amid plenty of sparks and quips over 27 years. I should note that the play begins on an election night in 2017, when it seems as if David is going to lose, and works backward to the day he arrived to first assume his Parliamentary position in 1994.
That’s the first act, anyway. The second act reverts to conventional chronology, beginning in 1994 and picking up where each scene in the previous act ended. The structure embodies the play’s central and cleverly executed motif of mirror images.
I’m making the plot sound more complicated than it feels. Interspersed with time-capsule video montages that show the changing faces of British government, the production moves with the barbed breeziness of an Alan Ayckbourn comedy.
Yes, Labour policies, strategies, economics and even iconography are discussed at length. But as he demonstrated in his gripping parliamentary procedural docudrama, “This House,” Mr. Graham has a gift for finding the human crackle in ostensibly dry political business.
It is a battle to which Mr. Freeman and Ms. Greig lend a deliciously combustible chemistry. And though the divided Britain of 2017 inspires lamentations about a party — and a nation — at war within itself, “Labour” dares to end on a note of guarded but cheering optimism.
The same can hardly be said of “Albion,” which is directed by Rupert Goold and stars a splendid Victoria Hamilton (of Netflix’s “The Crown”). The titular setting is the once magnificent garden of an English estate, long since fallen into disuse and decay.
Albion once belonged to the uncle of Audrey Walters (Ms. Hamilton), the self-made head of a home furnishings empire and a bereaved mother whose soldier son was killed in Iraq. She is determined to restore it to its former glory. She is also, of course, hoping to resurrect an England of long ago, of material solidity and a clear-cut social structure.
It isn’t a spoiler to say that this project is inevitably doomed. An end-of-days tone of Chekhovian melancholy pervades the show from its opening moments.
And Mr. Bartlett borrows unapologetically from both Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” and “The Seagull” for his portrayal of the characters here. They include Audrey’s benignly parasitic husband (an excellent Nicholas Rowe); her best friend, a swaggering and emotionally destructive novelist (Helen Schlesinger); and Audrey’s dangerously impressionable daughter (Charlotte Hope), who has artistic leanings of her own.
The fact that there is no place in contemporary Britain for the Albion of yore is explored in clashes among classes and generations. These are enacted in dialogue that, by Mr. Bartlett’s standards, often feels surprisingly banal, as if recycled from a century’s worth of country house dramas.
But Mr. Goold’s production, featuring a deceptively simple design by Miriam Buether, has been most engagingly staged. (The ways in which the garden comes to life is a marvel.) And the acting, especially from Ms. Hamilton, is passionate and persuasive.
For all its depiction of a world spinning off its axis, “Albion” affords the pleasures of a vintage, soul-searching British novel. In asking the question of who will inherit what remains of the British Empire, it brings to mind one literary classic in particular. And when I turned on the television the next night, there on the screen was a new adaptation of that very work.
I mean E. M. Forster’s 1910 masterpiece, “Howards End.” Watching this latest incarnation of one of my favorite books, I found it exasperating, poignant and comforting that more than a hundred years ago, Forster was posing the same questions about his country’s identity and purpose that haunted the plays I had just seen.Continue reading the main story