“Such a waste!” words frequently used to describe lost chances or opportunities and as an epitaph to someone whose life has been cut short, as though all that they achieved before death didn’t matter or was of little consequence.
Harley Granville Barker’s idealistic firebrand, Henry Trebell, sweeps through Waste, which is running in rep at London’s National Theatre, with an all-consuming passion – it’s unfortunate that it isn’t for a woman but a divisive Bill he wants push through the House of Commons.
It’s pretty clear from his sister’s inference that Trebell is a misogynist who doesn’t think much of women.
In fact, when he lunges to snatch an awkward kiss from the flirtatious (and married – tut, tut) Amy O’Connell, he admits that it’s his first in a decade (the man really ought to get out more).
Waste caused controversy when first written at the beginning of the 20th century for its central themes of adultery and abortion. Such was the resistance to it being publically staged that Granville Barker, the acclaimed writer, director and actor, who first imagined a National Theatre, completely re-wrote whole chunks.
Today, would we react differently if a story broke about an MP, a rising star and future high-flyer, who had got himself embroiled with a married woman? I doubt that we’d bat an eyelid.
Talking of failed opportunities, it’s such a waste that director Roger Michell didn’t think to tighten up this engrossing, but rather bloated, drama about political shenanigans.
There are some extended scenes that drag and are in need of the red pen. It’s almost three hours in length and could easily lose 30 minutes.
But it is elegantly performed in the National’s cavernous Lyttelton Theatre, with clever scene changes and a sparse, stripped down, design from Hildegard Bechtler.
Walls rise and fall, and curtains slide across to reveal each time a fresh tableau of Tory refinement. There are well bred women around a piano, the prime minister and his inner circle cynically plotting and scheming around a drawing room table, and an MP hard at work hoping to change the world.
Charles Edwards gives a magnificent and powerful central performance as the passionate, unshakable and dedicated independent MP who reluctantly joins the Conservative fold to further his political aims.
Trebell’s single-minded goal is to get a contentious Bill through Parliament that will see churches turned into schools and vicars retrained as teachers. To him nothing else matters.
At a house party at the home of a Tory bigwig he finds himself alone with a bored Amy and a mild six month flirtation between the couple explodes into passion. We later learn that this isn’t the start of an expected affair but nothing more than a brief fling that meant little to him other than sex.
But on the eve of Trebell’s accession into the Cabinet, his dalliance arrives with shattering news that threatens everything he’s worked for.
Granville Barker is right on the money with his insight into the sleazy, Machiavellian, goings-on in the corridors of power. The games and plots that politicians play don’t happen in Westminster but at the homes and clubs of parties’ wealthy backers and their influential grandees.
There’s an overlong scene where the power brokers, led by indecisive PM Cyril Horsham (Michael Elwyn) discuss Trebell’s future and the fate of his Disestablishment Bill, it’s very revealing.
The playwright’s flirtation with waste continues with the squandering of women’s talents and abilities in society. The women we meet at the houseparty are all highly educated and clever. Trebell’s sister, Frances (Sylvestra Le Touzel) is a maths teacher who gave up her career to care for her brother. Another is the driving force behind her MP husband.
A third, the young Lucy Davenport (Emerald O’Hanrahan), later expresses her annoyance that the only career open to her is a “woman’s job” and none at all, other than motherhood, if she marries.
The root cause of Amy’s kittenish behaviour is her frustration at a wasted life. She is married to a man she doesn’t love because she feared being left on the shelf; terrified of pregnancy less it age her; and unable to fulfil any sort of ambition because of her sex.
It’s hard to have much sympathy for anybody in this tragic tale but Edwards is riveting as a driven and ambitious man determined to do his best for the greater good at the expense of his personal happiness.
It is refreshing to see Olivia Williams play against type. We’re so used to seeing her cool and collected, a woman in control, a schemer or heart-breaker. Here she flounces, pouts and flirts (in beautifully chosen outfits) as Amy, a selfish, vain, self-centred and spoilt woman.
Andrew Havill offers excellent support, as always, as doctor to the wealthy, Sir Gilbert Wedgecroft, and I was mesmerised listening to Gerrard McCarthur’s wonderful enunciation as the devout and influential Tory MP Lord Charles Cantilupe who Trebell must convince to back him.
Waste runs in rep on the Lyttelton stage at the National Theatre until March 19.
Powerful and persuasive turn by Charles Edwards as an idealistic, firebrand, MP in Harley Grenville Barker’s overlong political drama, Waste, at London’s National Theatre.