A cut-throat cynical world of sex, sleaze and suicide among the political elite of 1920s England is exposed in Harley Granville Barker's Waste, which was initially banned by the Lord Chamberlain and has now been revived in an elegant but slow-burning production directed by Roger Michell, at the National's Lyttleton Theatre.
Backstage at a hung parliament, visionary independent MP, Henry Trebell is co-opted by the Tories to push through a controversial Bill to disestablish the Church of England and devote its wealth to education. Pursuing his cause with missionary zeal, he is barely distracted by his brief affair with a married woman, Amy O'Connell, until she suffers a lethal backstreet abortion. Threatened by public scandal the Establishment closes ranks and coolly seals the fate of an idealistic man.
Barker's dominant theme is barrenness, above all, the barrenness of a life such as Trebell's, in which ideas matter more than individuals and the play becomes the tragedy of a man who reserves his passion for the principles rather than people. The playwright also shows an acute eye for the hypocrisies and shifting alliances of political life and in this respect the work, written in 1907, seems to have a strong contemporary relevance. The best moment comes in the third act, when we see the future members of a Tory Cabinet first trying to hush up a sexual scandal and then gradually disowning Trebell.
Hildegard Bechtler's striking set has sleekly sliding panels that part to reveal sterile interiors, perfectly in keeping with the drama.
Director Roger Michell draws excellent performances from Charles Edwards as the suave, smooth, free-thinking Trebell, who is unimpressed with conventional romantic notions, and Olivia Williams as Amy O'Connell, the woman he dallies with, an orphan unhappily married to an Irish Sinn Fein supporter – her tearful revulsion-filled showdown with Trebell is particularly affecting. Fine support comes from Syvestra Le Touzel as Trebell's devoted sister, Michael Elwyn as the manipulative Tory leader, Gerrard McArthur as a sulky moralist, Louis Hilyer as a booming pragmatist and Lucy Robinson as a socialite and power broker.
The play admittedly is wordy and Barker's language may not have the muscularity and wit of Bernard Shaw but it manages to convey a strong sense of authenticity and the drama itself remains firmly in implanted on the mind.
Runs at the Lyttleton Theatre (National Theatre) until March 9 2016
Box office: 020 7452 3000
Photo: Johan Persson
Last modified: April 7, 2021