Review: Waste, National Theatre ‘Zero Relevance’

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I really should make more of an effort to investigate what plays are about before I buy tickets to them. I think it’s my excitement to see everything and experience everything. But the problem is I do occasionally get caught out and end up watching something that puts my back up – like Waste.

This play from Harley Granville Barker is about a scandal in 1920s England when a ‘good man’ in the government is undone by the death of his mistress who dies as a result of a botched backstreet abortion.

But in this male-centric piece, the woman is irrelevant. Amy O’Connell (Olivia Williams) is a posh woman in a loveless marriage. But her risks and her death is side-lined with the focus instead on the Establishment’s hypocritical judgment on the man in the affair – the married Henry Trebell (Charles Edwards)

Of course, I’m sitting in my seat thinking, what about the woman?? WHAT ABOUT THE WOMAN??? But nope, she ain’t relevant. This is a white man’s world and the writer is only interested in the tragedy of the white man.

WASTE by Barker,         , Writer - Harley Granville Barker,  Director - Roger Michell, Designer - Hildegard Bechtler, Lighting - Rick Fisher, The National Theatre, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson/

And that’s not the only problem that’s indulged here – a ruthless edit should have been made to the text too as, such is the level of extraneous dialogue, the first half, which came in at just over an hour, could and should have easily been about 30 minutes. Possibly less.

It’s all Henry talking about an Education Bill he’s drafting but his conversations with other posh white men are so lacking in conflict or engaging debate. It’s too easy to disengage and drift off. None of it resonates.

However I appreciate that given the history of this play – it was originally banned by the censors when it first debuted 100 years ago – there was an understandable desire to show it in its entirety. Ok, I get that. I have sympathy with that argument. But this then causes another problem – unedited, it is hard to make out the relevance to us today.

Watching the upper classes, the privileged elite, bicker and fret over their public and private lives just has no interest to modern audiences. It’s unbelievably dated. Even more so when female experience and suffering is jettisoned in favour of the noble suffering of the man.

WASTE by Barker,         , Writer - Harley Granville Barker,  Director - Roger Michell, Designer - Hildegard Bechtler, Lighting - Rick Fisher, The National Theatre, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson/

The production isn’t helped by its exclusively white cast. A play about posh white people played entirely by a cast of white actors. I mean, where to begin? I don’t know if this was for “historical accuracy” but whatever, this is not on. We’ve got to move forward with diversity and try harder.

However, aside from the above, there are some standout performances and some elegant writing that impresses.

Olivia Williams’ unravelling as she confesses to Henry that she is pregnant is pitch-perfect. Her desperate attempts to try and hold herself together as her life falls apart around her pulls on the heart strings.

Similarly, Sylvestra Le Touzel, who plays Henry’s wife, also has her moment to shine. Her scenes towards the end, where she is finally told about the affair that she has been blind to, are superb. Her outward stoicism that hides the heartbreak… A tender, heart-breaking performance.

So, oh, what I would have given to have seen more of the women. But sadly, this wasn’t their story.

National Theatre, London to March 19, 2016

Image Credits: All photos by Johan Persson.

  1. Charles Edwards (Henry Trebell) and Olivia Williams (Amy O’Connell)
  2. Olivia Williams (Amy O’Connell) and Charles Edwards (Henry Trebell)
  3. Sylvestra le Touzel (Frances Trebell)

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1 comment

  1. Posted by James Haynes, at Reply

    Frances Trebell is Henry’s sister, not lover. Historical accuracy is needed in the play to depict how ‘Waste’ was dominated by male politicians and essentially a ‘white mans world’.