Waste, National Theatre, review: ‘Pertinent politics but sterile ideas’

Charles Edwards (Henry Trebell). Picture: Johan Persson

Charles Edwards (Henry Trebell). Picture: Johan Persson - Credit: Archant

The actresses are stifled in Harvey Granville Barker’s story of sex, religion and politics, writes Marianka Swain.

A principled reformer destroyed by a combination of sex scandal, religious hypocrisy and machine politics: Harvey Granville Barker’s drama, banned by the Lord Chamberlain in 1907, still feels eerily pertinent. However, in Roger Michell’s arid production of this overlong play, the present-day parallels are more interesting than stirring.

Independent MP Henry Trebell is on a mission to disestablish the Church of England, and strikes a deal with the Tory party to secure them a majority in return for support for his Bill. But social revolution and a budding career are laid to waste by his passionless fling with an unhappily married coquette, which results in a tragically botched backstreet abortion.

Barker’s play chillingly evokes the backroom trading of the governing elite. It’s a world of pragmatic, sometimes callous compromise, far removed from those who put them in power, and from the idyllic view of democracy. But too much is communicated via interminable Shavian sermons, and though the narrow demographic – privileged, male and pale – is representative, it adds to the remoteness of the piece.

Charles Edwards is convincingly blinkered as Trebell, while Michael Elwyn provides a crafty leader and Gerrard McArthur an aristocratic moralist. But a reflection of the prevailing sexism short-changes the actresses. Olivia Williams is stuck with a deliberately aggravating character – hysterical Amy, trapped in a role prescribed by men – Sylvestra Le Touzel is limited as Trebell’s devoted sister, and Lucy Robinson’s promising Lady Julia, billed as the power behind the throne, appears in the opening scene and then vanishes without trace.

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Hildegard Bechtler’s giant, monochromatic set muffles the emotional moments, contributing to a sleek, educational but overly sterile evening. Trebell is more interested in ideas than people, and so, on this evidence, is Barker.

3/5 stars

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