There have been rave reviews in the Guardian and largely positive noises from the rest of the press for the new National Theatre production of Henry Granville-Barker’s Waste.
The play has at its heart a debate about a bill to secure the disestablishment of the Church of England and an attempt by the Tories to form a coalition government. Given recent political history you can see how this might be appealing. We see tensions between sections of the ruling class and the old power of the church. “How’s the wretched capitalist to live?” complains one of the politicians.
They want the church to step back from the direct running of schools, looking to a sort of Gove-esque free school solution instead. And the man they think can achieve this is Henry Trebell, an independent with a rising political star and the apparent popularity to steer the bill through.
The concerns of the Tories are depressingly familiar. “It’s the thought of one’s colleagues that keeps one awake at night,” says one, causing titters from the audience. Later they discuss “how to prevent undesirable people from joining the party”. And the newly formed Labour Party is snapping at their heels, taking over from the Liberals as the main opposition. “Look at the Russian Revolution. Look at Poplar. We live in dangerous times.”
Written in 1907 and promptly banned by the Lord Chamberlain, Waste was not publicly premiered until 1937 and then in a revised form. This production draws on both versions. The reason given for the ban was “the extremely outspoken reference to the sexual relations” between Trebell and a married woman and the mention of a “criminal operation” (illegal abortion). This, unfortunately, makes the play sound more exciting that it is.
The long debates about disestablishment are, to be honest, deadly dull. Given the dreary verbosity of the political speeches, it didn’t come as a surprise to find out Neil Kinnock had advised the cast. Apparently Nick Clegg had also been asked, but perhaps it was just all a bit too near the knuckle for him.
The play promises to “expose a cut-throat, cynical world of sex, sleaze and suicide among the political elite of 1920s England,” but we don’t see anything scandalous. The sex, the abortion, the subsequent deaths, in fact all of real life, take place somewhere else. And despite the obvious resonances with today, the characters were largely unengaging. Henry Trebell may be brought low by a sex scandal but he isn’t really interested in sex, or the woman with whom he has a fling, or what happens to her.
The only character I really warmed to at all was the husband of Trebell’s lover, Justin O’Connell, an Irish republican who suddenly has the power to make or break Trebell’s career. He handles the situation with wit and class.
Three hours is a very long time to sit in the dark and listen to Tories. I left feeling that I had pretty much wasted my own evening.