IT’S difficult to write a state-of-the-nation play, particularly when the nation is in as much turmoil as ours has been, but that’s what Mike Bartlett achieved with 2017’s masterful Albion. And if you didn’t see it first time round, you’re in luck. It is now being staged at Islington’s Almeida Theatre once more, with Victoria Hamilton again taking the lead role of Audrey, a formidable businesswoman living in an Oxfordshire manor house. ‘It is strange coming back to it because I feel like I’m in a time warp where the last two years never happened,’ she says.
As it traces Audrey’s single-minded mission to restore her home’s historic garden to its former glories, despite opposition, the play offers a potent metaphor for the divisions of Brexit Britain. Victoria has worked repeatedly with Mike, including on his mega-hit TV series Doctor Foster, and says what’s so clever about his writing is ‘that there are these strong underlying themes but he never hits you over the head with them. The last thing in the world you will feel when you come out of Albion is that you’ve spent two-and-a-half hours watching a “political play”.’
Victoria says she voted Remain, though ‘there have been people in our family and close circle of friends who voted the opposite way, and it’s been a deeply complicated thing to unpack’. Victoria hopes that the play inspires the kind of compassion for other people’s perspectives that has been lacking recently. ‘It asks very profound questions about identity and patriotism but it does it in a way that never dictates any one particular point of view.’
Audrey is the kind of character that actors dream of playing. ‘People feel very conflicted about her,’ says Victoria. ‘One moment they will be thinking, “God, you vile snob” and the next they’ll be thinking that she is extraordinarily impressive — and she is both those things at the same time.’
It’s also an example of a socking great leading part for a middle-aged woman, though Victoria says: ‘We’re suddenly in this space where these roles are being written for women of my age and it’s a truly wonderful thing.’ Yet, she notes, it is still only benefiting ‘a very small minority of actresses. We need to build on it”.’
Victoria has been one of the country’s most consistently electrifying performers ever since she left drama school in the mid-1990s and made a name for herself starring opposite Alan Bates in The Master Builder and joining Peter Hall’s rep company at the Old Vic. ‘When I looked at the actors that I really admired, like Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, all of them had started in classical theatre,’ she says, of her decision to concentrate on the stage for the first stretch of her career. On screen she found herself pigeonholed into costume dramas early on, appearing in a trio of Jane Austen adaptations. That was apparently down to what casting directors told her was her ‘period drama face’.
These days, though, she’s found a different niche, playing modern, high-powered political women, in the thriller series Deep State and new Sky drama Cobra. ‘One of the great things about getting older is they stop casting you quite so much according to how you look, and start casting according to what you actually are.’
One high-profile historical show that she did star in recently, however, was The Crown, as the Queen Mother. ‘I’m just very proud to have been a part of something where every single person — every designer and technician — was artistically at the top of their game.’
Next she’ll be seen in another Bartlett production, BBC1 ensemble drama LIFE, set in Manchester, where she plays an alcoholic Pilates teacher.
Her really burning ambition, though? To do more comedy and maybe even, she says fancifully, a one-woman comic show. ‘I think I’m probably at a stage now where I would only do it if Mike was willing to write it. Maybe I should order us a big bottle of wine after this show and slip that question in there,’ she laughs. We look forward to seeing the result.
■ Albion is at the Almeida until February 29, almeida.co.uk