Monday, 15 February 2016

Waste by Harley Granville Barker, directed by Roger Michell, National Theatre until 19 March

The National Theatre's production of Waste is beautiful to look at. It opens with the wide Lyttelton stage empty except for a scattering of pretty antique chairs and a baby grand piano. Music fills the theatre as the audience finds its seats. As the lights go down, a vast blank wall slides across the stage and, when it passes, the chairs are revealed to have become occupied. The music fades until we are left with the sound of a single instrument - the piano, which is being played by a character who is now sitting on the music stool in front of the baby grand.

Sadly, the set is the best thing about this production.

I had not seen the play before - it was written in 1906 and then revised in 1927, but banned when its author first wanted to put it on stage, (speculation about why it was banned ranges from the fact that its action revolves around reference to a botched abortion to a theory that the Lord Chamberlain felt that politicians should not be portrayed as having feet of clay; I suspect the reference to abortion was the problem).

When I went to see it a couple of weeks ago, I hadn't even read the script. And yet all through the performance I had the uneasy feeling that a different play from the one I was seeing was being stifled within the current production - this time not by the censor but by the director and his cast and their wilful misinterpretation of the text.

Afterwards, I bought the script and, reading it, my impression was confirmed.

Waste tells the story of Henry Trebell, an independent MP who is passionate about the disestablishment of the church. Probably disestablishment was more central to the passions of the population at the time the play was written, but the current National Theatre production makes no effort to convey this to today's audience, which left me, at least, slightly baffled as to why anyone could get quite so worked up about such a dusty issue. Disestablishment took place decades ago in Wales, but so far as I know conditions of life in that part of the British Isles are not markedly better than in the areas where disestablishment remains a distant possibility, so what exactly is so great about it?

Anyway, when Trebell is drafted in to shore up a minority Tory government, he abandons himself to the pursuit of his disestablishment dream. Unfortunately, he has already abandoned himself to seducing Amy, a married, but separated, woman, who becomes pregnant - although by the time she discovers she is Trebell has dropped her entirely and moved on to lofty matters.

Being a high-minded fellow, Trebell does not want Amy to have an abortion, nor is he able to abandon his principles and show her a moment's affection or kindness. Well what do you want him to do? He doesn't love her; should he lie or something, (he does have standards, don't you know)?

Unfortunately for Amy - and, in my view, for Trebell himself - Trebell does not love people; he only loves issues. As he tells his doctor,

"I found I'd fallen in love. No, not with a woman, you old sentimentalist. I am in love with a bill for the disestablishment of the Church of England".

What an unattractive fanatic, I couldn't help thinking, when I heard this - exactly the kind of person the later 20th century was plagued with. And yet the National Theatre team see Trebell as a visionary smashed by the Establishment.

Granville Barker's stage direction, introducing Trebell suggests a rather more equivocal attitude on the part of his creator, possibly closer to mine than theirs:

"With most of us opposing qualities are ... fused in compromise. What one remarks in Trebell is that with him this is not so. The idealist and the cynic, the sensualist and the ascetic, gentleness and cruelty, could, any one of them, have undisputed sway, if he'd let them. But not the least remarkable thing about him is the rigid control which some inner man seems to exercise over this outer man, yet with indifference, almost with disdain ... He flirts a little grimly."

Clearly a complex character, but a sympathetic one? I don't think so - especially as he has a gift for waffling that always marks out the kind of politician I loathe - what, for instance, does this rather lovely sounding statement of his actually mean:

"Time's no measure, is it, of the things men have made honourable?" he says to his sister at one point, continuing, "And whatever our failings, Frankie, we've meant to live ... you and I ... in the large freedom of the mind"

if anything?

Amy, on the other hand, the woman with whom Trebell, "flirts a little grimly"and whom he consequently seduces, is introduced as "a charming woman, who takes care she does charm" and is later described as capable of being "very innocent at times", which to me at any rate makes for a rather sad personality, someone who is a little out of her depth but knows enough to grasp that her position is far from secure in the circles in which she moves. It is also revealed that she was orphaned at two and left to the care of an atheist parson with a temper. She married at 17 to escape.

Despite being rather amusing - remarking, on hearing that it is possible the shooting season may be overrun by participants not from the upper class, "Poor partridges, with nobody but nobodies to shoot them"; and responding to a question about a headache she complained of earlier, "No-one pitied me; that must have cured it" - Amy is disliked by her hostess in the opening act, (although one suspects the woman is merely jealous of her guest). Meanwhile, Trebell's sister, (a character who is oddly devoted to her brother, in a way that might make more sense were she his wife, except that a wife would not be able to stand by and observe her husband's affair - and in any case Trebell does not know how to love enough to have a wife) , recognises that "there is something of the waif about her" and Ferrant, who, although rather naive, is possibly the character with the most humanity in the play, likes her and sticks up for her, when men - most particularly his Prime Minister* - try to level at her the age-old hypocritical masculine charge of being "a harlot"*.

Somehow though the actress who plays Amy sides only with the PM and the hostess's point of view, perceiving none of the poignance of Amy's situation. She appears blithly indifferent to the fact that her character's position is made impossible by virtue of the fact that she is a female in a world run entirely by men. Astonishingly in such an early work, Granville Barker has Amy arguing for a woman's "right to choose" - surely this should have struck some kind of a chord in her interpreter's psyche, (I do not like abortion and believe demand for it arises from the fact that society is structured for males, not females, but I do recognise that it is an issue centrally linked to lack of female power and the choice issue is not something to be brushed aside as the problem of a neurotic).

Disappointingly, in an interview on the National Theatre website, Olivia Williams, who plays Amy, makes it clear that she interprets her from the viewpoint of Trebell; poor Trebell, she says, "thinks he's found a party girl and finds he's got someone who's quite mad". She plays Amy as hysterical and, worse still, charmless. At least the playwright allowed the character that grace. In fact, to me, Williams's performance was a complete betrayal not only of her character but of her own sex - Amy played by Williams, is a reprehensibly silly and hysterical woman, one who should have known better than to imagine that intimacy and love were intertwined, one who is careless about her own fertility (at a time when fertility was not easily managed by the female partner) and one who, faced with the prospect of birth and motherhood, following a life that appears to have been marked by no love or support from anyone, in a society where single motherhood is not easy, to put it mildly, is terrified of how she will cope. None of this is sympathetically presented by the actress.

In any case, it seems to me that what the play is really about is not the personal relations between Trebell and Amy but politics and whether a fanatical, uncompromising approach to it is, however grand and morally pure it may appear, the right one. Against the Trebell romantic's stance:

"I'd never, so to speak, given myself away before. It's a dreadful joy to do that ... to become part of a purpose bigger than your own. Another strength is added to your own ... it's a mystery. But it follows, you see, that having lost myself in the thing ... the loss of it leaves me a dead man.

Granville Barker sets Cantilupe, a reluctant collaborator of Trebell, who articulates a very plausible countervailing point of view, (one that, to me, seems a great deal more persuasive than Trebell's - as I should have thought it might to a post World War I audience, disillusioned by years spent at the mercy of the grand visions of men with high ideals:)

"I find myself inevitably at war with the master fallacy of a godless age - the belief that the things we do can be better, or other, than the thing we are"; and

"The church's wisdom has been to know how much, on the whole, may be expected of men. And the hells of this world have been paved, don't you think, less with good intentions than with high ideals."

Ultimtely, the play is a demonstration of something a character called Blackborough, who is played as a demon but is really a pragmatist  - (Trebell would probably say something passionate about that being the same thing, but Granville Barker is very clear about what Blackborough is, describing him as "able" and "not an unkindly man", despite being devoid of sensitivity and with a "voice ... louder than it need be") - says very early on in the play, when he asks an aspiring young Tory politician why he doesn't work in Central Office and learn how the House runs.

The young man replies, "I think I'm more interested in ideas", to which Blackborough replies, "Then why go in for politics?"

Politics is the art of compromise. Whenever it has become the single-minded pursuit of an idea  - whether Fascism or Communism - the result has been disaster for the majority of the population. Therefore, to my mind, Trebell is an example of a dangerous man.  In the play his carelessness leads to the death of one character and an unborn child. The waste that we are shown in the play is not, as the character who speaks the final line about waste believes, the waste of Trebell's talent but the waste of a life that an individual doesn't know how to live. Trebell may be a visionary about disestablishment, but he is not a visionary when it comes to living - that is the lesson of the play, in my view. But in this I know that I am at odds with the director and cast of the current production. Whether I am at odds with the playwright is another matter.

Recommendation: Go. I don't regret it at all; it is an interesting, thought provoking play, with many good lines, (I particularly liked the Irish husband of Amy, saying re the English: "It is just possible ... to prefer the folly and passion of my own people to the sloven good humour which is the boast of yours", but there are many others). It is a pity about the way it is interpreted, but somehow it remains worth seeing.

*Harlots don't exist without customers, of course, but that's a whole other argument.

*Granville Barker gives the Prime Minister some great lines about politics and being a Prime Minister:

"When trouble begins, political or personal, write one letter only, the one that you know will get you  safe out of it. And let that be a short one"

"Most men's careers work to a climax and if they miss their moment the best of them may sink back to non-entity"

Summing up the skills needed to be PM, speaking to members of his Cabinet: "What authority will make men abler or more honest or less selfish than they are? I have to match you with - and against each other, so that from the heat of your differences a little power to do something may, if possible, result. The art of the thing lies in having such a quick sense of what won't work that before we've all quarrelled irretrievably I have set you to something else that will"

and, finally, in answer to an exhortation to exert himself: "No leader who needs to do that must ever dare to."