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25 October 2017

Albion and Saint George and the Dragon: two plays asking what Englishness means

Using starkly different tones, they eventually come to the same conclusion.

By Helen Lewis

The TV presenter Ben Fogle recently published a book about the English, with the subtitle “A Story of Marmite, Queuing and the Weather”. Two out of those three make it into this pair of state-of-the-nation plays, with Saint George and the Dragon trying a gag about queues and Albion’s lead character, Audrey, explaining her love of the countryside with the words: “It’s England really, isn’t it? A climate without cloud and rain isn’t honest.”

What Englishness means today is an urgent question. One of the most revealing measures in politics is the “Moreno scale”, which in its domestic version asks whether you feel more British or English. The former correlates with voting Labour and Remain, the latter with voting Ukip/Tory and Leave, also reflecting divides along the lines of age, education, and city v the rest. Both Saint George and Albion pick at these themes, using starkly different tones to come to the same conclusion. Beyond a ragbag of stereo­typical hobbies and interests, they suggest that Englishness is mostly defined by nostalgia; a hunger for a prelapsarian state of purity that never existed.

At the National, Saint George makes its case through a mock-heroic allegory in three parts. Unfortunately, the broad comic tone and the serious theme pull against one another, and the play feels like an ambitious mess. Imagine if John Cleese et al had tried to smuggle their thoughts on high inflation and the closure of the coal mines into Monty Python and the Holy Grail in 1975.

The play begins with the actor John Heffernan striding down the aisle, his auburn wig billowing, declaiming a mock-Chaucerian ode to an England that has already been lost. The Dragon, which conveniently sometimes takes (camp, borderline panto villain) human form, has made Miller, Butcher and the other villagers cowardly and selfish. They debate whether to give George the weapons he needs to fight, eventually cobbling together a suit of armour made of kitchen utensils. After he kills the Dragon (in an epic battle described to us by the villagers, with huge papier mâché dragon heads whizzing down zip lines) George takes off the armour to reveal that the bloodstains have left the shadow of a cross.

Metaphorical enough yet? George bounds off to see his brother knights and returns to find England skipped forward to the Industrial Revolution. The Dragon – he’s behind you! – is back and now symbolises capitalism. In the final section, we skip forward to the present; the Dragon now represents… well, it’s Brexit. Instead of flying about turning villagers into giant kebabs, it has wormed its way into our souls, making us smaller, meaner and more unkind. George can’t fight an idea, so he implores the villagers to renounce their trainers and big tellies and go back to the time before the Dragon came.  In essence, he asks: won’t you give up your iPhones to reverse the Fall of Adam?

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Would you? Of course not. And neither will they. Goodbye, St George.

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Audrey, the central character in Mike Bartlett’s Chekhov-inspired Albion, has a similar hunger for the past, not least because there, her son, James, is still alive. (He died two years before the play started, fighting in a foreign war.) She has left her business in London and bought a country house she remembers from her childhood, dragging her compliant second husband and twentysomething daughter, Zara, in her wake. 

All of the action takes place in the garden, which the director Rupert Goold depicts on a thrust stage, surrounded by earth borders. The acts are also seasons, punctuated by the cast planting and unplanting real flowers. Where Saint George turns everything up to 11, the world of Albion is orderly and uptight. There is one exception, in which James’s former partner dances ecstatically in the rain, rubbing handfuls of soil on her vagina. (If your instinctive reaction is to wonder what they’d make of that on Gardeners’ Question Time, congratulations, you’ve passed the closest thing we now have to a Tebbit test.)

Bartlett’s writing skilfully shows how we can too easily idealise a life rooted in one place as being somehow a more authentic mode of existence – a strain of thought present in Theresa May’s stylings about “citizens of nowhere”. He recreates an old-fashioned hierarchy, with Audrey as a benevolent patrician, expected to host the village festival and employ its residents to maintain the house and garden – then disrupts it with the arrival of the local Polish cleaner, who is faster and cheaper. (“Oh, Aud,” says her best friend, Katherine. “You really are living out your fantasy, aren’t you? A landowner with difficult staff.”)

Another class divide emerges, too, between those who expect their job to give them creative fulfilment – Zara is trying to become a writer – and those who work to live. The most devastating line in the play belongs to Gabriel, the young neighbour whose short stories Zara has promised (and failed) to send on to agents. “I’ll make coffee,” he says. “Then I’ll manage people making coffee. That’s probably it.”

The play belongs to Victoria Hamilton, who takes Audrey from brittle matriarch to tormented mother, giving us a big but nuanced portrait of grief. And if Albion occasionally feels frustratingly buttoned up… that’s the English for you, isn’t it? 

“Saint George and the Dragon” is at the National Theatre. “Albion” is at the Almeida.

This article appears in the 25 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Poor Britannia