Waste** (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

Posted: November 20, 2015 in Theatre

WASTEThe National Theatre has scored well with revivals of plays by Harley Granville Barker, most notably The Madras House and The Voysey Inheritance. This fascinating 1907 play has similar potential, centring on the political classes of that era and attempts to progress a bill to disestablish the Church from the State, a move that would still be controversial in modern, multi-faith Britain. The chief advocate of the bill is Henry Trebell (a fine performance by Charles Edwards), who damages his personal reputation by impregnating Amy O’Connell (Olivia Williams), flirtatious wife of an Irish Catholic (Paul Hickey). The acting is flawless, Sylvester Le Touzel being particularly moving as Trebell’s devoted sister. Granville Barker constructs the scenes superbly, giving an absorbing account of how public affairs and private lives are woven together by a prurient and judgemental society and how potentially great figures can go to waste because of matters of relative insignificance. The relevance of these themes to modern life is obvious and this is a play that I would happily see again and again, but not in this wayward production, directed by Roger Michell. The play’s themes may be timeless, but its specific details relate to the Edwardian era; the costumes are right for that era, but Hildegard Bechtler’s set designs are emphatically not. Yes, some of the images are stunning, moving white, grey and black screens form geometrical shapes between scenes and Trebell’s minimalist London house takes the breath away on first sight, but these images belong to another play, perhaps a Pinter. A play that draws its strength from subtle characterisations and detailed plotting needs intimacy with the audience and deserves better than to be performed in what looks like the lobby of a soulless ultra-modern hotel, with the actors appearing as if specks on a vast blank canvass. They are dressed as Edwardians, but surrounded by furniture that could have come from IKEA. Some sympathy must be accorded to Michell for having to contend with the notorious problems of the Lyttelton – the wide stage has never suited personal dramas, but, more significantly here, the dreadful acoustics make key words and sentences inaudible and Michell compounds the problem at one point by having an actor speak her lines while sitting with her back to the audience. A play should be able to explain itself to an audience, but, on this occasion, digesting a synopsis beforehand is strongly recommended. Waste could be a great play, but its title says everything about this production.

Performance date: 18 November 2015

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