Featuring a ruinous affair and political intrigue, director Roger Michell’s revival of Waste at the Lyttelton Theatre promised to be a stimulating evening. However, this austere production, although elegantly staged and featuring fine performances, never really ignited, remaining elusively chilly despite its tragic events.
The play focuses on the privileged political class in 1920s England. Henry Trebell (Charles Edwards) is an idealistic MP, persuaded to join the Tory government, to help push through complex constitutional legislation (I know! It’s gripping you already, isn’t it?!)
Meanwhile, he is having a secret fling with Amy O’Connell, a married woman (not a prerequisite for office, allegedly), played by Olivia Williams with great vulnerability, outwardly frivolous but emotionally unhinged.
Amy’s seduction by Trebell was suavely business-like, his passion being reserved for politics. And while Edwards’s depiction of the buttoned up Englishman rang true, the character’s unyielding nature made empathy difficult as events darkened.
Public and private worlds collide when Amy tells Trebell she is pregnant. He offers to support the child but having a baby is an abhorrent notion to Amy and the second half opens with the news that she has died following a botched abortion.
The play’s focus shifts to Trebell’s Cabinet colleagues and their attempts to keep the scandal quiet and the legislative programme on track. The deaths of Amy and the baby are diminished, not only by Trebell’s fellow politicians but by the flint-hearted man himself.
The “waste” of the title refers to their lost lives and to Trebell’s lost opportunity to use his political talents for the country’s greater good. It also alludes to the wasteland of his personal life: having given his all to public life, when that purpose is taken away, he is nothing.
Written in 1907 and first performed in 1927, writer Harley Granville Barker’s portrayal of England’s ruthless political elite certainly has contemporary resonances – it’s no stretch to imagine similar machinations going on today.
However, in other ways the piece felt very much of its time, with drawn-out scenes featuring posh, stiff upper-lipped gentlemen in suits arguing (and I love posh, stiff upper-lipped gentlemen in suits arguing) and lengthy exchanges about the disestablishment of the Church of England.
The final scenes featured the excellent Sylvestra Le Touzel as Trebell’s loyal older sister Frances, her measured yet sympathetic response to his predicament providing the production with an emotional resonance that was otherwise lacking.
The abstract set design by Hildegard Bechtler, featured sliding vertical and horizontal screens punctuating scene changes with slow deliberation. Although effective in creating an unsettled atmosphere, the downside was that the play’s pace was compromised, with the closing scenes in particular lacking momentum.
So, by no means a wasted evening but a ponderous experience. With some trimming the play could have been tighter and had more emotional impact to counterbalance its intellectual ambitions.
NB: the cast included Doreen Mantle, aka Mrs Warboys from One Foot in the Grave, a personal role model