Waste, Lyttleton Theatre, National Theatre, London, Thursday 19th November 2015
After the disappointment of The Cherry Orchard, another let down, albeit one of a very different kind.
The performance of Chekhov’s work was a gross failure of execution, making it impossible to say anything about the story or quality of writing and characterisation.
Harley Granville Barker’s Waste is on the list because of its contemporary significance. “By combining sex, politics and religion” Billington explains, “he virtually invented what came to be known as the ‘state of nation’ play”. The controversial storyline, including an abortion, led the Lord Chamberlain to refuse it a license for almost thirty years. It was not performed in public until 1936.
Waste is therefore an important work, but not an interesting or enjoyable one, based on this performance at least. Although I caveat this entire post with notice that, due to personal circumstances, I was unable to stay to the end.
Billington explains that the third act is Barker’s “masterstroke”; a sweeping depiction of political opportunism and personal hypocrisy that exposed the “shabby, backstage manoeuvres” of the Edwardian era.
Yet to set up the third act, the playwright has to engineer some ripely unconvincing plot devices. The fundamental conceit of the radical politician, Henry Trebell, proposing to disestablish the Church of England and re-deploy churchmen as teachers in schools built on the grounds of defunct places of worship is far too much of a stretch to retain credibility.
While the depiction of Trebell’s relationship with the wife of an Irish Republican activist is heavy handed. As with the disestablishment storyline, and reinforced by the title of the play, it is alarm-bell obvious from the off that things are going to end very badly indeed. There is little suspense is watching such a heavily-signalled plot play itself out.
None of this undermines the historic significance of the play, or Barker’s status as a forefather of modern British theatre, but given the choice in future I would read Waste as a dramatic essay rather than watch it again as a performance piece.