Waste by Harley Granville Barker; performed at the National Theatre; directed by Roger Michell

Sexual and political, Waste by Harley Granville Barker is a gripping and fascinating play exploring how scandal can control politics. Whilst written and set in the early 1900s, focusing on an attempt to disestablish the church, the play remains incredibly contemporary and accessible for a modern day audience.

The play was censored heavily when Barker tried to publish it. Whilst the critics centred on its sexual nature and its focus on ideas pertaining to abortion, there were many contemporary plays that focused on similar themes thus suggestive that the real issue was its political edge.

Centred around Trebell (Charles Edwards) and his covert and brief relationship with the vivacious Amy (Olivia Williams) – who  is incidentally married to an Irish Catholic – and his relationship with his desire to see the bill past, the play is fast passed and intriguing. Throughout the play, Trebell develops from a very self-assured, arrogant man who flirts through wit and is incredibly focused on his political career to a man who suddenly lost everything. This transition was fascinating to watch, as the cool facade of Trebell slowly dripped away and we saw a man trying to hold to some semblance of the life he had previously. As this Trebell’s life disintegrated, the audience was given an insight to his relationship with his sister – Frances Trebell (Sylvestrale Le Touzel). This scene in the second act between the siblings was one of the most powerful in the play as they tried to work through Trebell’s hurt and discussed the possibility of getting away. Any hope that was created in this scene was ultimately undercut by the consequent actions, leaving the audience shocked and horrified as the play drew to a close.

The monochrome colour scheme and sparseness of the set makes the characters seem small and vulnerable as well as accentuating the purple dress and shawl of Amy. Even after the play ended and the company were giving a bow, the set was still being used: with a bright white light emanating from the back wall, blinding the audience, and the whole – incredibly large – stage revealed with nothing more than a knocked over waste paper basket, bringing the title and messages of the play home for the audience, right to the last minute.

Beyond the disestablishment of the church, the play also explored gender based issues of the time. Act One opened with four ladies and a man in a household room, engaged in domestic pursuits (playing piano, reading a book); this was a stark contrast to the opening of Act Two in which four men were sat around discussing a political crisis. Underlying the play is the question: is it satisfactory for a woman to live through a man? Lucy Davenport (Emerald O’Hanraha) – hair in a pixy cut – believes it is; her marriage to Trebell’s secretary, Walter Kent (Hubert Burton), gets her as close to politics as she can possibly come and whilst there is an underlying feeling that she wants more, she seems happy as ultimately she wants children. The expectation for women to have children is also prevalent. Amy’s declaration that she does not want children, no matter what, alienates her husband and, later, Trebell neither of whom cannot understand it. Her constant pleas with Trebell that surely it’s ‘my choice’ still resonate with a modern day audience as abortion issues are still being raised. Indeed this passionate, tension-riddled performance is highly topical as well as emotionally gripping and brilliantly acted.

See more on the National Theatre’s site


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