Albion’s Dónal Finn on gardening and Brexit
“It wasn’t so much of a challenge, but it was an ambition, I suppose,” says The Witcher star Dónal Finn on being one of four new recruits for the revival of Albion at London’s Almeida Theatre. The Irish actor plays window cleaner Gabriel in the drama, created by Doctor Foster writer Mike Bartlett.
“You can just tell that they [the returning cast] have done so much work on it that you want the scene to be mutual,” Dónal continues. “They were always really encouraging as well.
“No one ever said, ‘oh, last time this happened’, or whatever, which made it fully investigative for Nick [Rowe], Victoria [Hamilton], Margot [Leicester], Helen [Schlesinger] and Edyta [Budnik]. They weren’t just trying to recreate something that had happened before, they were looking to explore it again.”
It was this sense of examining new ideas within Albion which drew Dónal towards working on the play’s revival. “I was just keeping up with the stuff that Mike Bartlett was writing and it just seemed very active and alive,” Dónal explains. “The intention that Rupert had about bringing [Albion] back was the idea that plays change over time and that’s exciting because it’s not that old, so it kind of shows how fast the world has changed over the years - particularly this country.”
The biggest change, of course, being Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. Returning to the Almeida in 2020 from the start of February, is now billed as a ‘Brexit play’, despite the team not wanting any mention of it when it was first staged in 2017.
“There was no [mention of] Brexit in the publicity of it,” he reveals, “but I think, you know, for friends of mine that were seeing it and haven’t categorically known the intention of Mike’s writing, they just think it’s a story about grief, loss and the family and kind of a new rendition of Chekhovian drama.
“Chekhov had his own undercurrents at the time, so I think the way that it [Albion] can be presumed to be about Brexit is in Brexit’s subtlety,” he continues, “of the change of housekeeper and what that represents, and the kind of the longing to organise something that is, by its nature, chaotic.”
The housekeeper at the centre of Bartlett’s play is one Audrey Walters - played by The Crown’s Victoria Hamilton – who plans to revitalise an old, disused garden in rural England. It soon becomes the most important thing to her, but for Dónal, his prized possession is a lot more familial.
“I’ve recently gone back my family home, and my younger brother who is now getting older has moved into [my] bedroom, so I don’t feel a sense of ownership over that room anymore.”
The family home, back in rural Ireland, is a farm, and Dónal says growing up in such an environment helped when acting on Miriam Buether’s garden set.
“The actors are always trying to give the idea that the garden is far greater than the space that we see on the stage,” he says. “I think because I grew up on the countryside and I have seen my house from faraway fields, I understand that kind of feeling, I suppose, and it’s just trying to relay that into what’s on stage.
As well as hinting at the full size of the garden on set, Dónal says he also has to try to meet the great work that returning actors did last time. “They have lived with the text for far longer than us and so it’s kind of that it’s been populating in their head for two and a half years or whatever,” he explains. “They can say things to you with an authority or with a history behind them, and all of that history means that it’s kind of coloured and detailed so you’re just trying to match them as quickly as you can.”
It’s the theme of history which comes up a lot in Bartlett’s work, from Albion touching on the ever-contemporary issue of Brexit to King Charles III – initially performed in 2014 - appearing to predict Harry and Meghan’s decision to step back “as senior members of the royal family”.
The play, which later became a film three years later, saw the prince consider his position as a royal after falling in love with an art student.
Dónal doesn’t think Albion has to foreshadow something, however. “It’s pretty much stuff that’s happening now but I think it doesn’t feel like a warning,” he explains. “It feels like a commentary, I suppose.
“Whereas King Charles III is definitely a future play, something that will inevitably happen at some point. I don’t get that sense of warning, it’s [Albion] almost like an exploration of the plebiscite.”