We find the notion of the waste of anything in life shameful, if not sinful – removing, as it does, any idea of success or achievement by focusing instead on what could or should have been fulfilled had we not fallen short of expectations. A waste of life, a waste from living without love, a waste of talent, a waste of political ambition – subjective ideas based on the proposed providence of events and actions had they not been cut too early – are the main themes of this revival of Harley Granville-Barker's 1907 play that looks at how the hypocrisies of politics and government (as well as those towards class and gender) can derail so much potential by prioritising self-protection over the far-reaching, bigger ideals that then become wasted. Whether this rather cold, dark and somewhat emotionless production is a waste of three hours of your time, somewhat depends on what else you could have spent the time doing.
Whilst the story still clearly resonates in 2016, the writing does little to give the characters any depth or believability – with no fault to the actors, who are working with script that tells a story through them rather than about them.
Today we are unsurprised by the idea of a scandal or cover-up within the political arena, so the central premise of the play does little to shock (especially when compared to the fact that the initial script was banned by the Lord Chamberlain's office, ostensibly due to the reference to abortion but widely accepted to be because of the magnifying glass it holds up to the "behind closed doors" conversations of senior politicians, that direct our lives through the decisions made). The antihero here, Henry Trebell, is something of an outsider to the traditional political classes – an independent politician with a deep-rooted passion for his Disestablishment Bill that makes him a useful figure to have as a distanced ally for the Cabinet. At a time when there were expected protocols of behaviour, we see his passion eschew all of these as they are played around him – the teachings of the Church are correct just because they are so believed: class is of a direct link to a level of intelligence; the purpose of women is to be married and spawn children (even if the former is loveless and the latter without maternal desire) and their place is in the drawing room playing piano, or attending to household chores.
But this passion doesn't make him, his ideology or behaviour seem normal or acceptable to us either. It leads to echoes of sociopathy ("I fell in love – not with a woman, with this", he says of his work on the Bill) and so the affair he has with the married Amy O'Connell (herself an outsider too, due to her penchant for "amusing men" and having the "touch of the waif" about her) - whilst holding the allure of love for her – is, for him, little more than a sexual outlet (quickly bored of her flirtatiousness for getting in the way of them making love and later stating that "This need to care for people is the devil in all".) When it leads to her pregnancy, abortion and then death – and the unfurling impact on his environment, work and life (and beliefs) – it puts both his and the establishment's lack of empathy and confused sense of priority at the forefront; opposing views but neither of which you can easily agree with.
Charles Edwards and Olivia Williams (as Trebell and O'Connell respectively) give exemplary performances that clearly carry the show and the story – in part due to the antiestablishment nature of their characters, and therefore having lines that don't sound that out of place with modern language, but also as they bring an energy in their delivery that conveys the inner demons and confusions being faced as though they really are in the moment you are watching. Edwards paces, ruffles his hair and chews at his fingers, sometimes seeming to stumble over lines as his mind is going at a pace with which his words can't keep up. Whilst Williams effortlessly portrays a silly flirtatious girliness as a thin veil, behind which she occasionally allows us to see her deep-rooted sadness and dissatisfaction with her life's lot. The rest of the cast also deliver well – doing a fine job of the enunciation and characterisation required to make you believe in their beliefs without becoming "period drama acting" – but when neither Williams or Edwards are on stage, you need to work hard to maintain interest in really listening, if you are to care at all about the developments of these emotionless characters that seem to be from another time.
This is the challenge with this production of Waste. Whilst the story still clearly resonates in 2016, the writing does little to give the characters any depth or believability – with no fault to the actors, who are working with script that tells a story through them rather than about them. It feels dated and cold because we are used to having our emotions played with and caring about the impact that the story has on the characters. The setting is beautifully designed – minimal staging, lit either in the harsh whiteness of Trebell's office home or the foreboding gloom of the country house opening, and using oversized flys that slowly glide in, out, up or down to change scenes or even be part of them (the 'door' in Trebell's office slides across the whole width of the vast Lyttleton stage). But whilst it looks supremely stylish, it is also all rather languid and so further destabilises the pace – requiring the audience to really exert themselves in order to stay awake.
There are some fine examples here of how to revive a script that was written over a century ago without 'modernising' it or resetting to the present day. For the most part, the cast's dexterous delivery makes it sound less antiquated than it is. But Granville-Barker was acceptably no George Bernard Shaw and the script itself is far from a classic, so there are limits to how successfully it can have any affect on today's audiences. With no emotional belief in the protagonists, it's difficult to care about the impact that the decisions made have on them – no matter how tragic those impacts are. So what we end up with is more of a recognisable polemic on politics than an empathetic understanding of people's choices. One may suggest that in today's age of disposable culture and the need for instant gratification, there just isn't the desire to sit through three hours of theatre that gives you no emotional journey to take in return – which may be a shame when harking back to days of yore, but when a great number of seats become emptied after the interval, it's a fact that shouldn't be ignored when deciding on a play to revive.