Theatre Review: Waste at the National Theatre

Written by Sebastian Whale on 12 November 2015 in Culture
Roger Michell pulls off a stunning adaption of a century-old play about politics, scandal and idealism

When Harley Granville-Barker put pen to paper at the first iteration of Waste in 1906, he could scarcely have comprehended the contemporary relevance his play would carry more than a century later.

An MP embroiled in controversy is also a hopeless ideologue crushed by the realities of compromise in government, while a Tory party wrestles to gather a Commons consensus to pass legislature.

Though the resonance will cause politicos to salivate at the play’s incisive analysis, director Roger Michell’s elegant adaptation at the National Theatre’s Lyttelton stage is also a fine comment on personal tragedy, historical relations between the sexes and the nature of pragmatism.

Central to the production is the role played by independent MP Henry Trebell, a visionary who is co-opted by the Conservatives to help push through a bill to disestablish the Church of England.

His love affair with a married woman, Amy O’Connell - the subject matter of which prompted Lord Chamberlain to call for the play to be banned in 1907 for its “extremely outspoken reference to sexual relations” – results in an unexpected pregnancy and untimely death of the mother-to-be from a failed abortion.

The feared public backlash to the news triggers the demise of the play’s fated character. The Tories renege on their offer of a future Cabinet post - Trebell’s political ambitions quashed overnight.

Though ostensibly O’Connell’s death is Waste's pivotal moment, Michell focuses the entire second half on the eventual fallout and culmination of Trebell’s burgeoning Westminster career.

That’s not to say the Tory MPs – who courted and then thwarted Trebell – are portrayed in an exclusively negative light. Though one reflects "a man of ideas is often an embarrassment to the government", Sir Charles Cantilupe's (Gerrard McArthur) portrayal of congenial morality plays well against Trebell’s favour of principles over people.

The former’s appears tempered and measured; the latter’s passionate and unrelenting.

Waste’s most intriguing set piece involves the Conservative leader (played by Michael Elwyn) and his contemporaries wrangle with the practicalities of O’Connell’s death and its implications for the party’s future, and Trebell’s prospective role within it.

The staging is minimal but the script is laced with humour, enhancing the poignancy of the production’s central moments, with stunning performances from the exceedingly vulnerable Olivia Williams (O'Connell) and dogmatic Charles Edwards (Trebell).

The title is deliberately loaded with metaphor – a reflection on the literal loss of life, a political talent in Trebell and the near miss of a political ideologue breaching the as yet impenetrable realms of upper government.

At three hours long, Waste requires patience from its audience, but given the plethora of witticisms and seemingly boundless contemporary relevance it is well worth the investment.


'Waste' is showing at the National Theatre between November-February 2016. Tickets are available here.


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