On 26 October members of the Albion cast and Resident Director Tom Brennan stayed after the performance to share their thoughts on creating the production. Below are highlights from the Q&A discussion.
[SPOILER NOTE: This conversation contains references to key plot points and character analysis which you may prefer to read after watching the show.]
Tom Brennan: Good evening. Thank you all for staying for this Q&A. My name's Tom Brennan and I’m the resident director on Albion. So my first question is; what attracted you to Albion?
Helen Schlesinger: Well, I read the play and I just thought it was great, and I wanted to be in it. I liked Mike Bartlett's work anyway... Such a boring answer isn't it? But, yes, I thought it was great. It's a combination of lots of things, I suppose, but the play is the main thing.
Nigel Betts: Yeah, it's such a good play, and it's so deep, and it's dealing with so many issues that that's what first attracted me to it. But sometimes you think, well, people start saying, "Oh, it's going to be a play of now. It's going to be very singularly issue based." But, when you started to read it you just thought, "Oh my God, it's working on so many levels" that you just have to be part of it, really.
And they're quite a good team those two, Mr. Goold and Mr. Bartlett, so you can't really miss out on getting to play in a room with them, because that's a lot of what the journey is. You're working with a new script, Mike's in the room, so it's changing all the time. We changed the ending in the first week after we'd done the read through. So, it's very alive, and it's what we do it for, really.
Margot Leicester: I've worked with the writer, Mike Bartlett, and Rupert before on King Charles III here in this theatre, and that was such a happy experience both artistically, and I would say, company-wise, so it was a funny glue that bound us all within that, which you often can get when you do a new play because you're united in the kind of panic and insecurity of not knowing how it will land. It's quite different than doing Hamlet, you kind of know that you are in a great play, that's fine. And with this we suspected we were, but we all went on that discovery together, and it was just a joy to do.
Tom: Having been in both productions. What do you think the relationship between those two plays is?
Margot: I don't know in a really kind of linear or intellectual way, to be honest but I knew when I first read it that there's a speech at the end of the first half of King Charles III where Charles speaks to parliament in the act of dissolving it. He self-identifies as a creation of Albion - the Albion, the embodiment of it. "Like an oak, an Albion oak." So, there's some quite visceral connection for Mike, I think, with land ownership tradition. All sorts of the ideas that you will have seen coming up, I do think have a genesis somewhere in that play.
Also dysfunctional family, that's an obvious carryover. But I think the land of England in the sense of what it might be, was all going on in that play and he's moved to a more naturalistic idiom, if you like, to look at it in, then that very formal one that Charles was.
Tom: What was the most challenging aspect of being a part of the production and the rehearsal process?
Helen: For me I think, to be honest it was the sexual relationship. I think that gets more challenging as you get older. Maybe you’re just less scared when you are younger, generally, about these things? That, in a way is just sort of symbolic of how vulnerable and open you have to be, and that's all quite terrifying. But it all takes a while, and it's very interesting, an interesting journey. But yeah, that was for me.
Nigel: Developing new characters is always interesting, especially when you have less to go on. But that's also fun because you can create more of it yourself and that's part of the journey. It's fun to create somebody new.
Audience member: What was the original ending?
Helen: It was like The Cherry Orchard in that they left. There was lots of goodbyes, and the land was left unoccupied, and then a soldier appeared.
Margot: As though this is a soldier of the next-kind of war, a nuclear war.
As we say this, don't you think it's astounding how fluid this was? It's so extraordinary to me that it was that open. It was almost quite... Not casual, but not a big deal. It was more like, "What's working?" "What's happening?" "What's going on?"
Audience member: Do you remember the conversation as to why that wasn't seen as the best ending?
Tom: A lot of it was to do with war as a thread - that the more the rehearsals progressed it felt like this was a play about this woman's grief, and her family. And that the kind of meta-narrative of England was running alongside that, but this idea of like a foreign war and British people returning home didn't feel quite threaded through in the way that I think Mike first anticipated. It became something different.
But that being said, Matthew's speech about the rose was still there, in a different form.
Helen: That's right, he was like Firs, at the end of The Cherry Orchard, he came on and everyone had gone.
Audience member: Did you improvise any of the scenes to develop them, or was it all completely written as it was?
Nigel: To the word.
Audience member: Did you find that restricting?
Margot: No, that's normal for any writer that I've worked with. They know what they want. Then they might go into a very fluid thing, like Mike did, about how the ending would be. But there's no brain-storming going on. I always think writers know exactly what the mean, and exactly what they want to say. I don't think there's any ambivalence in them, they're very clear about it.
Helen: It is incredibly specific. But I thought it was interesting the way there was a certain amount of cutting. Really towards the very end and it was all quite minimal. But I felt like you were given a whole rehearsal period to sort of explore it. But if you couldn't get a clause, if you couldn't quite inhabit a clause, it got cut in the end. That's what I felt he did there. If a beat seemed unnecessary eventually it would go. So you didn't really mind about the cuts, it was interesting.
Margot: It was very egalitarian, actually, on the part of the writer, because I felt that - and it's rare, I think - for him the rehearsal process was a discovery too, and he wasn't proud about that. I think he was quite open about what the playing of his play revealed to him. I found him extremely democratic and honourable about that.
I have heard some people talk about it as a sort of post-Brexit play, but I think Mike acknowledged he had written a huger, grander, greater play than such a narrow definition, perhaps, describes it as. And I think it was revealed in the course of rehearsal he'd written a great play, not just a state of the nation blah-di-blah-di-blah, and I think he was very honest about that, wasn't he? We discovered this amazingly great and beautiful play, which I believe it is, to do with larger themes than some kind of local show about local people.
Nigel: Down to words, I mean you could up offer up, say, "What about if I said that word instead?" Now and again he would say, "Actually, yes..." And then sometimes he'd go, "No, because that word is a connection to there, and then it's connected to there, and it has an under-current to there." And then you go, "Oh, okay. I see what you mean." So that's the joy of working with a new writer like him.
Audience member: The music. Who decided on that, and why?
Tom: Some is in the script, so at the end of the first half the rock and roll song is written into the script, and that's a song that Mike, I guess, likes. The Vaughan Williams piece at the beginning was another.
It was really a long discussion about what would be appropriate, I guess. And also Rupert's gut instinct about what would work. For the scene change from one to two, I know Nike Drake was talked about and discussed and people like that. But this new artist, Nick Mulvey, was discovered and Rupert really liked the hopeful vibe of that. And also the lyrics are from T. H. Lawrence, so there was a nice sort of intellectual line there.
Helen: I really like it, I think to be part of that story of the growth of the garden, and then the disintegration of the garden is great. In a funny way I like the fact that Rupert chose that music, because it's a bit like his performance, do you know what I mean? It's nice to feel connected in that way. You know, it's quite personal. I've no idea, but I imagine it's quite personal, the choice of music.
Nigel: I think the music is very important. I think we've become used to, certainly in film and television, having a musical hint to what we're supposed to be feeling, but I think in theatre sometimes it's a very useful tool to either counteract that feeling or to go along with that feeling. I think Rupert's choices, and Mike's choices together, especially in this play, has been brilliant because they evoke an emotion alongside the narrative emotion.
Margot: I also think the sound design, which is normally nothing I pay attention to, but often because I'm poised backstage waiting to come on, with you, as it turns out, between act one and act two, I listen to the beautiful sound, which is a very kind of early evening sound. Of birds in a wood putting themselves to bed, or the sound of a wood pigeon. I love those sounds that are not cuing the audience into some emotional state, which I often think underplay music is. But the sounds of, if you like, the natural world that have been recorded I find beautifully reflect the visual in this in a way I've not come across quite before. The precision of those bird sounds. They are just lovely. I don't know if they register in the audience, I always hope they do.
Audience member: Knowing that your character would leave Zara off stage, did that impact on the way you were playing it on stage?
Helen: So knowing that I would leave her, did that impact me on stage? I suppose it had an impact on my thought, in terms of when we were rehearsing it and exploring it. So I think lots of different things, and I suppose that's why I really like the play, because it tries to be quite like life, in that some days you think this relationship is the best I've ever been in and it's going to last forever. Other days you think this is a type of nightmare, you know, and I must finish it immediately. So I think so many different things about it.
But I suppose it certainly doesn't exclude the possibility that it'll be over, and that it'll be over because of what Audrey says, or it might be over because I can't hack it, you know. And so it's sort of keeping all your options open, which I suppose she would want to do. Come back and see Audrey and not compromise about the relationship. But maybe Audrey is right about some aspects of the relationship. In some aspects she has a certain amount of self-awareness about not being very good at relationships. But I suppose there's a hope that this one might be different, which one does not want to acknowledge at all - it's something you try to keep quite secret.
That's why I love the play, actually, this sort of Chekhovian thing that you can see these things in so many different ways. And I listen to them talk in the fourth act about what she did and the whole... I don't know, it's just interesting. I suppose it allows the audience to make their own choice.
Audience member: The play felt rather bleak at the end. I just wondered what optimistic notes you still thought there were at the end of the play. Was there something positive to take out of it?
Nigel: In a strange kind of way what we're about is presenting a story with those people and those situations, to ask questions of the audience, to ask you to however you've interpreted what you've seen on stage with what you bring from your own life, is to either make you question things, or to reiterate what you already believe. We present a possibility, what you take from that is up to you as a person, because as a character you kind of can't do that.
Margot: Did you see the weather forecast about the storms that hit Ireland and the thing about what the '87 storm had done to forests in England? I was really interested to see lots of stuff about how destruction is a regenerative force for forests. It was astounding to me, the concept that destroying stuff - because this is what nature does - provokes the new birth.
I mean, it's kind of Shakespearean, that it needed all the stuff cleared out for the new to grow. And I feel the healing thing of art, doing a play about what's lost and what you can cherish and hold on to... That's the hopefulness to me. The fact that Mike Bartlett's written a play about what it's like to lose the worst thing in the world and what you can hold on to, and what will grow out of it.
To me the metaphor isn't any of this old Brexit thing, it's the tree. And you find it in so many things, All My Sons, Arthur Miller, the loss of the child, a collapsed tree in Beckett. And we have only a tree on stage. But it's hopeful, isn't it? It's hopeful that the regenerative capacity of us and nature. I think that's why everybody should leave feeling really hopeful.
Tom: And I always feel that there's... The rose survives. The line, "The rose has survived the war." And there's something about that. And, as Nigel says, whether that's positive or a negative thing, should we let go of the past? Should we move on from those icons? Or should we replant and regenerate? I think that's the ambiguity that I find kind of interesting. She's left all alone without everything, but there is new hope for a new garden.
As we've reached a point about endings, maybe this is a good moment to reach an ending for our Q&A. But thank you all so much for coming.