Wednesday, 18 November 2015

'Waste' at the National Theatre

Last week we went to see 'Waste' at the National Theatre, an Edwardian play by Harley Granville Barker. I've only seen one of his other plays ('The Voysey Inheritance', also at the National) so I was quite keen to see this.

It's a tale of politics and intrigue that was banned at the time. It's about the old boys network and covering things up for one another until that's no longer possible. Political needs and public decency and how far you can stretch "the truth", particularly under a Conservative government and a well connected Prime Minister with a bill he needs to be taken through Parliament by an up and coming younger politician.

Unfortunately, that younger politician has an affair with the former wife of an Irish rebel and she become pregnant. In a tough scene she goes to him to tell him her news and her intention to have an abortion which sadly kills her. If word gets out that he was the father then his career - and the bill - will be destroyed. We see the scheming to keep it secret but word gets out and he commits suicide. And that is the 'waste' of the title - drummed in, just in case you don't get it, by a waste bin lying on its side for the bows by the cast at the end.

But, you know what? I didn't really like it. Sorry Harley, but there were just too many words, too many long, long speeches and an absence of any warmth or compassion. The set didn't help either, with a very bare stage for most of the time, with only a chair or a bench and acres of cold space trying to be stylish with sliding panels making for an interesting sight but visually cold. That's not to say that there weren't any good performances, there were. But the text and the staging put me right off quite early on in the play and I could never quite get into it. I quite liked the scene with the scheming politicians all looking after their own factions of the party and thought that was quite realistic but ultimately 'so what?'. Why should I care about these rich and privileged schemers? There's nothing in the play to make me want to care.

I think, ultimately, that was the problem I had with the play - there was nothing to make me care about the characters or the unfolding story. Where was the scene to make me admire the young politician, to make me care about him and his cause as set out in his bill? There wasn't one or if there was it was too subtle for me. The only warmth in the play was from his sister when she tried to give him hope in the middle of the night when she knew he was contemplating suicide to avoid the scandal. That was a nice performance by Sylvestra Le Touzel but too little and too late.

I should also name-check Charles Edwards as our 'wasted' politician without a future, if only for memorising all those words. And there were so many of them. He gave a nice performance but ultimately left me cold and with little thought for the character. Who cares about him? Certainly not me.

Of course, there's more waste in this play than just the politician. His one-time lover and her unborn baby, his sister's life that is shattered and tattered, frayed by the publicity - other people suffer too. At the end the politician's secretary came on to tell the sister that he'll continue her brothers' brave fight and will never give up, some emotion (at last) resulting from the effect the politician can have on other people. But again, too late.

Sorry Harley and sorry National Theatre, but this one's not for me.

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