Monday, November 16, 2015

WASTE at the National Theatre: private morality made public

Included in the wonderful John Singer Sargent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery this year was a chalk drawing from 1900 of a handsome young man, matching Sargent's gaze with a knowing smile as if to say "Make sure you capture *all* of my handsome looks won't you?"  The subject was 23 year-old Harley Granville Barker.

1900 was an important year for the young actor, not only did he become a lead player with the forward-thinking Stage Society but he also wrote his first play "The Marrying of Ann Leete".

It was through the Stage Society that Barker made two particularly close friends, George Bernard Shaw and the critic William Archer.  Shaw's use of language and dialogue-heavy style of drama influenced Barker in his playwriting and that is very evident in his play WASTE which is now revived at the Lyttelton.

It is fitting that the play should be staged at the National Theatre as it was written in the same year that Barker and Archer wrote "A Scheme and Estimates For The National Theatre", a costed document for the establishment of a UK national theatre, listing everything from staff wages to an idea of the repertoire.  Nothing came of it immediately but the idea refused to go away and long after Barker and Archer's passing, the National Theatre launched in 1963 under the direction of Laurence Olivier.  

For an architect of the concept behind the place, Barker has hardly been well-served by his dreamchild: THE MADRAS HOUSE was staged in 1977 with Paul Scofield and THE VOYSEY INHERITANCE appeared in 1989 and 2006.  Now we have his controversial play WASTE, directed by Roger Michell.  Initially banned by the official Censor in 1907, Barker gave several private productions of it under the auspices of the Stage Society to gain it a copyright - in the first one he even played the lead - but it was not professionally produced until 1936.

To be honest, WASTE is a play that can be admired rather than liked, Barker's scenes can sometimes trip over into being too prolix for their own good - especially if there are more than one character onstage - but usually the scenes involving just two characters create biting argument and tension.

Henry Trebell is an independent MP who is invited by the Conservative Government to head up a bll that he is passionate about, to dis-establish the Church of England.  Trebell is an ambitious politician who need not worry about home distractions as his adoring sister Frances runs that for him.  However at a country house weekend party Henry starts a dalliance with Amy O'Connell, a 'modern', opinionated, separated wife of an Irish freedom agitator.

Although popular with the men, Amy is quietly disliked by the women of the party including Frances for her free-spiritedness, but she suits Henry's teflon life.  All of that is turned upside down when Amy appears in his office in a frantic state after finding out she is pregnant and is determined to have an abortion despite Treball's insistance that she have it.  Days later Amy is dead from a back street abortion that went wrong and Trebell is suddenly facing disgrace with his former political colleagues willing to throw him under the bus.

As I said, my trouble with the play is that while individual scenes are gripping - Amy and Henry confronting each other over the pregnancy, Frances trying to give Henry a reason to live, Frances denouncing her former friend - his scenes with a group of characters soon become a static talking shop with little to animate them.

Roger Michell sadly doesn't really speed the play along, this is really material for a forensic director like Peter Gill or Howard Davies and while Hildegard Bechtler's design can be seen as a tribute to Barker's wish for non-specific theatre design, I suspect the grey & earth tones of her sliding panel set and costumes would suit something a little less site-specific than Edwardian parliamentary London.  I did enjoy watching the pretty patterns during the scene changes.

If you want someone to be put-upon and upper-class then Charles Edwards is your go-to guy.  Henry Trebell follows his roles of Richard II, Charles Condomine in BLITHE SPIRIT and Charles Marsden in STRANGE INTERLUDE and while he again delivers a very fine performance, he cannot make Trebell's singularly callous approach to anyone outside his House of Commons colleagues particularly understandable.

There are good performances from others in the cast but I felt the best came from Trebell's put-upon women.  Olivia Williams has never really bleeped my radar before but here in her climactic scene, she was electrifying: Amy's terror at being pregnant and her panic at the closing down of her opportunities leapt off the stage and swept away the verbose scenes that had gone before.

Sylvestra Le Touzel also gave a very fine performance as Frances, Trebell's protective sister who comes into her own at the end when she realises that her brother is determined on a course of action that she tries desperately to change.  The final scene that finds Frances with a blank canvas for a life gave her ample scope to scrape away at the poised veneer her character has hitherto presented.

All of this is rather swamped by a bizarre design trick just for the curtain call.  Any thoughts about what Barker was referring to by his title: the waste of Treball's life, of Amy's life, of Frances' happiness, of a career, of ideals, is defeated when the cast take their bows on a bare stage apart from a larger-than-life tipped-over wastepaper basket which featured in the final scene when Trebell's secretary was throwing away his post into it.  This clunky, "do-you-get-it?" motif throws the air of quiet desperation that the final scenes suggest into a cocked hat.  Or an upturned, giant wastepaper bin.

Oddly enough, some might say that the title might be pinned on Barker himself who, with his second marriage to the American writer Helen Huntingdon, turned his back on the British theatre for good as she had little time for it.  Shaw could never forgive him for this or for the marriage and they were never reconciled as Barker moved to Paris.  Although never actively involved in theatre again he did translate several plays with his wife as well as writing his "Prefaces To Shakespeare" where for the first time, several key plays were investigated not by a critic or academic but by someone who had directed or acted in them.  This once and future king of British theatre died in 1946.

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