From Notting Hill to 'hopeless idealism' and realpolitik
Some 12 months ago, Roger Michell and newly appointed artistic director at the National Theatre, Rufus Norris, sat down for coffee in the iconic central London venue.
Michell, a former resident director at the Royal Shakespeare Company whose filmography includes Notting Hill and the Oscar nominated 2006 film Venus, came armed to the meeting with three prospective projects – though one stood out from the pack.
Waste, penned by British playwright Harley Granville Barker in 1906 before being revised in 1926, is set against a hung parliament with the incumbent administration facing defeat at its upcoming Queen’s Speech – while an expectant Tory party waits with bated breath to seize back control.
So in the closing stages of 2014, with the upcoming general election outcome still hanging in the balance, the contemporary relevance of a near century old play was too seductive a choice for the theatre’s hierarchy to overlook.
Alas, the polls flattered to deceive and a hung parliament it wasn’t to be. With the unexpected Tory majority in May went all permutations of defeated Queen’s Speeches, SNP-Labour coalitions and constitutional disarray.
Nonetheless, Michell argues that recent events in the Labour party have only made the play more timely - despite it being set in the 1920s.
Central to the production is the role played by Henry Trebell MP, a visionary ideologue who is co-opted by the Conservatives to help push through a bill calling for the disestablishment of the Church of England.
His naivety and exuberance is eventually squashed by the establishment, leading to Treball’s literal and metaphorical demise. And thus it was the election of Jeremy Corbyn that revised the play’s contemporary eminence, Michell claims.
“It feels that the play sort of reversed itself into even more resonance with the current political scene because of everything that has happened over the last few months with the election of Jeremy Corbyn,” he says.
“Because it’s a play about, some might say, a hopeless ideologue being crushed like a butterfly under the wheels of realpolitik.”
But the director is certainly a fan of the Islington North MP. Indeed, he was among the deluge of supporters to cough up £3 to vote for Corbyn ahead of September’s election. Their children even went to the same primary school.
“So far Jeremy is doing absolutely wonderfully, he is my MP and I support him and I joined as an associate to vote for him and I approve of him,” Michell says.
“But his childish naivety is both his strength and his weakness you might say. And this play is about a man who is ideologically committed to the hilts to doing something and doesn’t see - he is warned several times during the play - that he is a pawn in a bigger game and that the reason he has been chosen to carry out this very, very difficult and radical, controversial bill, is precisely because he is not a member of the Tory party. So if it all goes wrong he can be dumped - as he is.”
Despite being an unequivocal fan of Corbyn, Michell’s rhetoric implies he believes the writing is on the wall for the Labour leader, much like the ill-fated Trebell character.
He does not shy away from this comparison, but argues Corbyn’s tenure will leave a positive legacy on the party and British politics in general – despite potentially being short lived.
“I think his legacy is already established. But I’d be very surprised if he took us into the next general election, as would everyone else. But I still think that he’s a force for good and I think that he has already changed his own party for the better. And something different and better will grow out of this little political earthquake that he’s created,” he says.
When researching the production about an ideological MP constrained by the machinery of politics, Michell felt compelled to contact Nick Clegg, who he claims is a “great model” for the Trebell character.
“I tried to get Nick Clegg to come and talk to us, because I thought he was a great model for Trebell, this ideologue who made this fatal error of voting for tuition fees,” he says.
Though the former deputy prime minister was reticent to Michell’s advances, former Labour leader Neil Kinnock was more than eager to meet with the director. The Labour stalwart, it turns out, was a long-standing admirer of ‘Waste’, having studied it precociously.
Kinnock, who made it clear in the Labour leadership contest he was no supporter of Corbyn, was equally scathing in his assessment of the play’s central character.
“Neil Kinnock was fascinating, because he came in and he said he loves the play, he studied the play... and he said ‘everyone is wonderful in the play except that fucking bastard Trebell, what a ghastly man he is. It’s this man who’s so pompous, who is such an ideologue, who is so against the rights of women, who won’t brook any argument with his great vision of change’,” Michell reveals.
“Kinnock said ‘that’s not what politics is about. Politics is not about taking up one position and never changing it, politics is about accommodating to the real world, and if you really want to change people’s lives for the better then you have to be pragmatic’. [It was] Fascinating, what an insight into, not just the play, but the world of politics itself.”
Ostensibly ‘Waste’ could seen as comparing the naivety of the left to ruthless Tory pragmatism on the right.
Michell cautions against such a conclusion, but concedes that the Trebell character is portrayed more as an ideologue brought down by a ruthless establishment, instead of a naïve contrarian wrestling the political realities.
“I think Harley Barker loads the dice far more in favour of Trebell than against him, but he mitigates that by making some of his aspiration naïve, perhaps,” Michell says.
Instead then of a comment on the left-right distinction in politics, the play seeks to explore the role democracy plays in Britain, Michell argues.
“We export democracy now like 19th century demagogues exported Christianity, democracy is what everyone in the world needs, we say, and yet democracy is a complicated thing isn’t it?” he says.
“Democracy isn’t necessarily government by referenda; it’s not necessarily simply adopting the will of the people. It’s channelled in our system, in quite odd ways. Many, many times in our history we’ve had governments in power who have not been elected by the majority of the population, not nearly a majority. So the play is also debating those issues.”
Michell would “love” for senior Tories, including David Cameron and culture secretary John Whittingdale, to watch the play, arguing they would “recognise” aspects of their political lives in the production.
“Sure, I’d love them to come. But I don’t know if they intend to. I hope that they would recognise something in the play. If they were honest with themselves I’m sure they would.
“Most politics is about pragmatism, it’s stupid to think that politics is driven only by idealism. It’s got to be driven by what you can achieve.
"And I imagine that it’s really finding that balance that’s the crucial consideration if you’re a politician. How far should I compromise what I want to do with my ability to do it?
"And this play is really all about that.”
'Waste' is showing at the National Theatre between November-February 2016. Tickets are available here.