With Albion due to return to the Almeida stage from 1 February, we revisit this behind-the-scenes account from the first production in 2017, written by Associate Director Tom Brennan, about a research trip the creative team took to Hidcote Manor Gardens.
Mike Bartlett’s play is set entirely in a garden somewhere in rural England. This setting has provided a number of challenges, but equally a number of thrilling possibilities. Living in London or any busy city, it’s hard to understand what sitting in a country garden feels like.
At the end of the first week of rehearsals it was decided that we’d take a little trip to a real ‘English country garden’. A bit of on the ground research. We had read the play a few times and had slowly worked our way through it. We discussed relationships, characters and story beats. And so by Thursday afternoon, we were feeling a little overwhelmed by the intellectual and emotional heft of the play. A trip to Hidcote Manor (the garden that Mike based Albion on) seemed like a very good idea.
I haven’t been to a National Trust property for several years. I remembered them being pretty low key, with some bloke letting you in as you drove in through the gates. Hidcote on the other hand was a huge institution with massive cafe, shop and huge numbers of gardeners and staff. We quickly swept past the house and into the gardens.
What makes gardens like Hidcote unique is the way that they separate spaces. Traditional pre-world war one gardens were either small cottage gardens or a landscaped area of grass or wood. Hidcote on the other hand was a huge space devided into different sections or ‘rooms’, each with a different theme or style. The first few 'rooms' of Hidcote's garden are modest in size but bursting with flowers and colours. These are what our guide refers to as the 'showstoppers'. The plants are packed tight, you brush past bright flowers, ferns and even butterflies that seem stuffed into borders on your way towards the next opening in the hedgerow.
Then as you delve deeper, past ‘box hedges’ and the 'red border’ (all new terms to me by the way) you find subtler, larger, more peaceful and more private areas. I found myself wandering down a path through a wooded area. Suddenly a view opened up: a bench framed by trees and field beyond it. This view came as a surprise and took my breath away. It was clear that what had felt like a natural placement of bushes and trees was, in fact, designed. The whole walk away from the house; away from the showstoppers and the people was also designed. My experience in the garden was constructed almost like a poem. To quote the protagonist of Albion, “it had to be experienced as a journey”.
What can we learn about this experience? Well, much like when thinking about the play in rehearsals, we begin brash and showy. What are the dramatic actions of the characters? What are the showstoppers? What are they actively doing at each moment? We’re all Elgar and flags and Churchill. But as we tread deeper into the garden, as we explore the play further, we find little patches laced with deep melancholy. We find the shadows of the characters’ past creeping up to touch their present. Albion is a family drama in a true Chekhovian sense. Where a barren Cherry Orchard might seem a perfect environment to discuss a Russian family in crisis, similarly it is this garden; with hedgerows to keep out the neighbours, that seems like an appropriate place to spend time with this particular British family.
The second thing of particular note was our tour guide. We thought that we might be given a tour from the much revered, and lovingly named ‘Scouse John’. ‘Scouse John’ had worked in the garden for his whole life, and so I think that we were a little disappointed when our young guide appeared. What could such a young man reveal about the philosophy of the gardening life? One might presume he might share my generation's tendency to short term goals and high speed entertainment. In fact, his relationship to time was unique and profound. He existed for the pleasure of seasons and years rather than seconds or minutes. He told us about plans for areas of the garden that would take five or six years to mature - I can't imagine building something for that length of time! He told us about picking tiny leaves from between rocks for a week, so that saplings might start to grow between them and so that the public might enjoy the pebbles themselves.
He spoke with passion about retention rather than experimentation. He was interested in preservation of the garden, understanding the original methods of growth rather than making flashy new horticultural choices that new technologies (or indeed the effects of global warming) would allow. He wanted a coherent journey from past, through present and into the future. He took great pride in his role of caretaker of the garden. He was aware and even honoured that his life’s work would be to maintain the creative work of those that had come before.
There was something that seemed inevitably zen about this glacial life. But it was seriously hard work too. He described waking up in darkness in winter, his hands freezing. He described trudging through borders in the pouring rain. What made his work worth it was not a big celebration or theatrical applause. Instead, what made our gardener’s life worth living was a series of simple, beautiful moments. For example, he described feeling like the luckiest man alive to be able to stand alone in a garden and watch the sunrise. However, when the dark moments came and the rain poured, he was also happy in the knowledge that after a few hours, he could sit with a hot cup of tea in the warm and the dry.
As we push closer to performances, the work of rehearsing had been much like gardening in summer. Now the characters have grown into great trees. Their roots have mingled and are sufficiently intertwined. For us the work becomes about pruning, shaping and encouraging. And when it gets hard, which it inevitably does, it’s never long to the next tea break, never long until the sun shines again.