Hidden Gem Of A Play Explores Government Corruption: Waste Reviewed

National Theatre ★★★★☆

By Sam Smith Last edited 30 months ago
Hidden Gem Of A Play Explores Government Corruption: Waste Reviewed National Theatre 4
Gerrard McArthur as Lord Charles Cantilupe and Charles Edwards as Henry Trebell in Harley Granville-Barker's Waste © Johan Persson
Gerrard McArthur as Lord Charles Cantilupe and Charles Edwards as Henry Trebell in Harley Granville-Barker's Waste © Johan Persson

Harley Granville-Barker is one of the greatest English playwrights of whom most people have never heard! While, however, he is hardly a household name today, at the start of the twentieth century he was a highly influential actor, writer, director, producer and impresario. He even made plans for a National Theatre over fifty years before one was finally founded!

His play Waste considers questions of public mission versus private interest in politics. Although it clearly examines the world he saw around him at the time (it was first written in 1906 though the National Theatre employs his revised 1927 version) so many of the issues it raises feel relevant today. Party politics still reign supreme, frequently leading politicians to be torn between adhering to collective responsibility and following their private consciences, and immigration and the role that the Church should have within the State remain pertinent topics. In fact, the play’s suggestion that the country is run by an elite cabal, and that the common man who tries to intervene ends up being burnt, feels more relevant today than it did in the 1980s or ’90s.

The plot centres on a Hung Parliament in which Independent MP Henry Trebell (Charles Edwards) is invited by the Tories to push through a bill to disestablish the Church of England. He sees this as a moral mission in which the positive aspects of the Church can be channelled into schools and other things that serve society (when a physician claims the same could be done with medicine, he is remarkably prophesying the National Health Service!). He is joined in the venture by Lord Charles Cantilupe who, as a religious man who claims that Trebell’s ‘heresy’ fascinates him, comes from a different angle in wanting to keep the Church ‘pure’ by detaching it from a corrupt society.

Things go awry, however, when Trebell impregnates the married Amy O’Connell (Olivia Williams) who subsequently dies following a botched abortion. Even though it seems that his own association with her will be covered up, the Cabinet decides not to take the risk, and shelves the idea of disestablishmentarianism as it cuts him off entirely. This is a personal tragedy for Trebell who is left feeling that without his mission he is nothing at all, and, regardless of one’s personal stance on this specific issue, the episode reveals how so many ‘once in a generation’ opportunities to achieve real change end up being squandered.

Directed by Roger Michell, Granville-Barker’s thematically rich and insightful play is executed to good effect in the National’s Lyttelton Theatre. The staging feels very modern as a predominantly black area is punctuated with screens that slide, both horizontally and vertically, into place to create a plethora of areas. This, however, feels symbolic of the fact that Granville-Barker himself developed a production style, the traces of which we might still recognise in the most contemporary of stagings. The cast is very strong across the board, but special mention should go to Gerrard McArthur as Lord Charles Cantilupe whose softly spoken manner so obviously masks a ruthless, determined and, above all, expectant character.

In rep until 19 March 2016 at the National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 9PX. For tickets (£15-55) visit the National Theatre website. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 12 November 2015