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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
WASTE
at the National (Lyttelton)

TIME POORLY SPENT
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  Olivia Williams and Charles Edwards/ Ph: Johan Persson

The National is currently playing host to Harley Granville Barker’s political drama Waste, written in 1907 when, in tandem with his contemporary William Archer, he was vigorously pounding the table for a national theater. Without their joint efforts it’s quite conceivable that the South Banks’ internationally acclaimed trio of theaters might still be languishing on the drawing board.
 
Though Barker, who also doubled as an actor, wasn’t quite up there with his more famous friend George Bernard Shaw – several of whose plays he appeared in – his best-known dramas, The Madras House and The Voysey Inheritance, remain in the repertoire, as does Waste, which many consider to be a timeless masterpiece.
 
Initially banned because of the unflattering picture it paints of British politics and politicians and because it also involves a sleazy backstreet abortion, the play was reworked in 1926 and most versions today are performed as an amalgam of both.
 
In a nutshell it’s the story of Henry Trebell (Charles Edwards), a flashily arrogant, determinedly confident independent politician who claims only to be in love with his work. He hasn’t kissed a woman in 10 years, devoting all his time and energy to getting a bill through Parliament that will disestablish the church in favour of education. It’s his one abiding passion – except for a brief dalliance with Amy O’Connell (Olivia Williams), an unhappily married young woman who inadvertently muddies his hitherto spotless career by falling pregnant and dying after a botched abortion.
 
The ensuing scandal sends seismic shockwaves through government and social circles alike, culminating in Trebell being asked to stand down. With nothing left to live for, he puts a bullet through his head. 
 
I have to say that previous revivals of the play – one at the Old Vic, another at the Almeida – made much more of an impact than director Roger Michell’s disappointing Lyttelton production. The first scene, set in the country home of socialite Lady Julia Farrant (Lucy Robinson), is wordy and interminable, filled with characters who play very little (if any) part in the events that are to follow, and who are impossible to engage with or care about. The dialogue is turgid and top-heavy with exposition. There’s no one to root for (which may well be the play’s intention) and precious little in the way of dramatic tension.
 
Rarely have I seen so many empty seats on an opening night at this venue, or so many absentees after the intermission (I counted 15 vacancies in the rows in front of and behind me). Had the walkouts stayed, their reward would have been a livelier second half, which focuses on the abortion scandal and its tragic aftermath. All the same, and despite Edwards’s excellent central performance as Trebell, it was hard to sympathise with his downfall and the sheer waste of a life and a career. There is nothing at all admirable about him (apart from his dedication to his work), while poor Amy, on the other hand, who is as much a victim as he is, is unsympathetically and unfairly reviled as a harlot who deserved her fate.
 
Though the performances are uniformly very good indeed, the play – apart from Trebell’s dominance – is very much an ensemble piece, the best work coming from Williams as the hapless, helpless and hopeless Amy, and Sylvestra Le Touzel as Trebell’s devoted sister Frances, the only person he really cares about.
 
Hildegard Bechtler’s visually striking, icy minimalist set comprises a variety of moving panels that conveys no real sense of period, the point being, I suppose, that the play is as relevant now as it was when it was first written. But a masterpiece? Not on the evidence of this production it isn’t.

 


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