Harley Granville-Barker is nowadays not a well-known name at all, and yet a century ago he dominated the London theatre scene. He was the lead actor in many of Shaw’s premieres, directed the Royal Court through its first golden creative era, promoted many women playwrights, and pioneered stripped-down, text-focused, emotionally truthful productions of Shakespeare. He lobbied hard for a National Theatre, wrote prefaces to Shakespeare’s plays that are still packed with insight, and left us six plays, three of which – The Voysey Inheritance, The Madras House and Waste – have major claims on our attention. Yet his work is rarely revived, so this lavish but well judged production is both timely and welcome.
Waste was written in 1907 but refused permission for performance, ostensibly because of its daring treatment of the theme of abortion, but more likely because of its unsparing exposure of the true practice of contemporary politics behind closed doors. This lucid production by Roger Michell takes the best of the original and a rewritten version from the 1920s and sets it in period costume and setting but with stylized minimalist interiors – arcs and sliding panels – of the kind that Barker favoured in his own productions. In Hildegard Bechtler’s fine design we move seamlessly from a country house weekend, to a London town house, and to a Westminster committee room, with the plush aesthetic of Eltham Palace never far away.
Henry Trebell (Charles Edwards) is an idealistic independent politician devoted to the cause of secular education, which he seeks to pursue through disestablishing the Church of England. He is co-opted by elements of the Tory Party as a useful pioneer to carry this reform through Parliament in the wake of a General Election victory. However, his brief relationship with Amy O’Connell (Olivia Williams) derails these plans, when O’Connell becomes pregnant and dies in a back-street abortion. Can her husband be persuaded to keep quiet? And even if so, can Trebell’s career and the reform measure survive? Letters, papers and a large waste paper basket dominate symbolically in many of the scenes, and the ‘waste’ of the title extends broadly to the loss of Amy’s life, to Trebell’s own downfall, to the political fall-out, and to the way in which large measures and reforms can be brought down by apparently tiny and insignificant flaws and slips.
The greatest strength of this play is its understanding of politics, which makes House of Cards seem crude by comparison. The third act in which the prime minister (Michael Elwyn) delicately balances all the contending forces in his cabinet, neutralizes the threat from the aggrieved husband and reasserts role of pragmatism over the world of ideas is a masterly – if depressing – piece of writing, and played with finely modulated pace by the talented cast. Rather like a Wagner opera, each act is rewarding on its own terms, but seems over-long when placed end to end. To my mind the final act in particular, with the denouement flagged up long in advance, would benefit from cuts.
The standard of acting is uniformly high, as are the production values, most especially Rick Fisher’s painterly, shifting lighting design and John Leonard’s creepily distorted Chopin soundtrack, which creates a sense of unease from the outset. Charles Edwards plays the lead role heroically full-on, but with plenty of flecks of humour, and Olivia Williams makes the most of the fragile yet defiant Amy. The scene in which she asserts a woman’s right to choose is remarkable for its time. Among the politicians Gerrard McArthur stands out in his studied combination of world-weary disdain for the present and unfashionable yet suave defence of traditional principle.