London review: WASTE
Greetings from London! Here's the first of my week's seven reviews. And although it did not get off to the most exciting of theatrical starts, it's always a great pleasure to be in this great city.
WASTE at the National Theatre
By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
Harley Granville-Barker wrote this creaky but then-shocking political drama in 1907 when it was promptly banned. And although it is no longer shocking, and although its specific issue—the disestablishment of the Church of England—could not be of less interest to an American viewer a century later, its larger issues endure: backroom politics when old (or young) white men do deals to protect themselves and their ambitions. "You're all part of your age," a dead woman's husband tells them, "the greed and folly of your age."
That dead woman (Olivia Williams) is a victim of an illegal abortion because a respectable doctor would not help her and her lover would not compromise his reputation by taking responsibility and owning up to the inevitable sex scandal. That lover is Henry Trebell (Charles Edwards), a rising political star whose nobility of cause conceals his ignoble heart.
The title refers to the waste of lives and ideals and is shamelessly symbolized by a trash basket, placed center-stage, into which letters of request from voters are unceremoniously tossed. Roger Michell's direction takes a similarly didja-get-it approach by staging all the lugubrious dialogue as a debate: over and over, characters speak to each other from opposite sides of the stage, barely moving. This stiffness is further emphasized by Hildegard Bechtler's peculiar set design made of sliding cream-colored plinths and walls and doors which match everybody's cream-colored clothing.
One of the final lines, "Why stay in a prison just because you built it?" is, inadvertently, a theatrical indictment as well as a political one: Granville-Barker is, despite such major revivals, done.