Review: Waste, National Theatre

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*Originally written for A Younger Theatre*

Perhaps the only truly relevant aspect of Waste, at the National Theatre, is that the white upper classes deal with the country’s politics, and avert their private lives away from public scandal. Except that here, the RP accents are notched up significantly to match their twenties settings (MPs didn’t even try to hide their upbringing back then). I’m not quite sure how the National Theatre – stress on the ‘national’ descriptor – has got away with a completely undiverse cast*. If the Tory ministers discussing the new cabinet in the play would value public duty and ambition to rise up the ranks above all else, this production certainly then appropriately instills a sense of duty in watching it and a deep ambition to rise out of your seat.

Waste was written by Harley Granville Barker. He’s a key figure for the National Theatre, which he wrote the founding scheme for in 1907 alongside William Archer. The NT, then, owes him a lot. The theatre historians would add that Granville Barker as a playwright was ground-breaking for writing the ordinary sounds and pauses of everyday speech, and a having modern scepticism about life in general. He also pioneered a less fussy style of set dressing, which Hidegard Bechtler has achieved brilliantly in a minimalist, shifting set. Granville Barker was a prodigy of George Bernard Shaw’s no less.

Today, however, the stuffy over-pronunciation, elongated vowels, and twenties party politics in Waste don’t have the pace or drama to sustain our attention. Well, mine anyway. Sometimes I thought we’d accidentally slipped into a Berkoff play where the speech had been slowed for unnatural effect. That being said, there are some polished performances from a cracking cast.

Doreen Mantle pulls some excellent faces, as Lady Mortimer, which are truly entertaining. You know when the Queen accidentally becomes a meme or a gif? Like those. If the character had been developed better in the script you might imagine she’d be a Downton Dowager (Maggie Smith) sort. The cast of ministers handle the complicated scripting – often there will be a dozen or so characters conversing all at once – terrifically well.

Charles Edwards is just right for the role of Henry Trebell, a character firmly committed to disestablishing the church – a project which he calls his ‘baby’. But he’s not about destruction, he claims, but the foundation of a new education system. At the start of the play he has not kissed anyone in over a decade, so wedded has he been to his work. His affront to romantic conventions, in a very conventionally romantic ‘moonlit walk in the garden scene’, quickly win over Amy O’Connell (Olivia Williams). She’s an orphan in a sexless marriage with an Irish Sinn Féin supporter and has escaped over to England in her utter boredom. Their affair is ultimately destructive – ironically the very thing that Trebell has most sought to avoid. Amy becomes pregnant, completely desperate, and dies following an illegal abortion. It is Trebell’s tragic downfall, however, that is most affecting.

What was a politically affronting and theatrically challenging play for its time, in this production feels staid and a little out of touch. The cast, however, carry the complicated text and slightly grandiose characters with ease.

*If anyone dares proceed with the ‘historical accuracy’ argument I will come back all guns blazing.

Waste is playing at the National Theatre until 21 March and then continuing its tour. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website. Photo by Johan Persson.