Waste, National Theatre review: "A beautifully crafted piece of Edwardian political theatre"

Written by Oliver Rowe on 20 November 2015 in Culture

Political intrigue mixes with personal tragedy in this haunting Edwardian play

Waste - in repertory at The National Theatre on London's South Bank until 19 March - is the latest piece of political theatre to hit the stage. Charles Edwards, fresh from starring as Richard II at the Globe, brilliantly captures the complex Independent MP Henry Trebell, who has been co-opted by the Tories to push through a Bill to disestablish the Church of England.

In its place, and using the released monies, would be 50 educational colleges "to give power to the future". Meanwhile, Trebell's affair with the pretty, but married, Amy O'Connell (Olivia Williams in top form) results in her dying after a backstreet abortion. Written in 1907, the play was initially refused a licence when submitted to the Lord Chamberlain's Office because of its "extremely outspoken reference to sexual relations". Its writer, Harley Granville Barker, was also required to take out all mentions of the-then “criminal operation”.

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Against the backdrop of a hung parliament, Michael Elwyn as the Tory leader-in-waiting is unconvincing, but great dialogue throughout covers any gaps. Louis Hilyer's bluff, foot-tapping northern MP, Paul Hickey's broken, estranged husband (“There's a dead woman between us, Mr Trebell”) and Gerrard McArthur as the mercurial church leader are all superb.

For a man who says "I hate all destruction", Trebell is at the root of a fair bit. His demise as the Establishment closes ranks and breaks ties with him is nevertheless painful to watch. He convinces himself there is no way out despite his sister’s attempts to convince him that life is worth living.

There are few visual references to Parliament, with most scenes taking place in homes in Berkeley Street and Queen Anne's Gate. Hildegard Bechtler's minimalist sets work well: the closing of the very long sliding office door ends scenes emphatically and adds to the overall sense of finality that is at the core of Waste – the waste of life, career and ideals.

This is a beautifully crafted Edwardian piece – but hung Parliaments, scandal, and questions of church vs state are never far away today.

Photo: Johan Persson

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