In what is beginning to look like a worryingly hit-free regime at the National Theatre, artistic director Rufus Norris must at least be commended for trying something different to his predecessor Nicholas Hytner, even if Hytner is looking increasingly like the man with the Midas touch, the odd spectacular failure aside. The difference between the two seems to be that a typical Hytner-commissioned production would often star Rory Kinnear or Simon Russell Beale, would be directed by the likes of Howard Davies or Hytner himself, and would either be a version of a Shakespeare classic or often a skilfully translated Chekhov or Ibsen. In the case of Norris, it is commendable to wish to revive plays such as the forthcoming Les Blancs or Harley Granville Barker’s Waste, but is it really worth the effort?
The question while watching Waste comes despite a very decent production by Roger Michell, who is probably best known today for film work including Notting Hill and Enduring Love. The problem with Granville Barker’s play – originally written in 1906 and promptly banned by an outraged Lord Chamberlain before being rewritten in 1927, the version now being revived – is that it deals with two plotlines that never entwine wholly satisfactory. The first, which occupies much of the action, concerns independent politician Henry Trebell (Charles Edwards), who is co-opted by the Tories into supporting a controversial bill for the secularisation of the Anglican church, with all the chicanery that involves. And the second, which unfortunately isn’t given the emotional space to breathe that it needs, revolves around Trebell’s married mistress Amy O’Connell (Olivia Williams), who dies after a botched abortion and consequently leads to an almighty scandal.
At three hours, this is a long evening, made even longer by the Shavian debates that the characters indulge in – religion vs education; private vs public morality; the Irish question; etc. Some of it’s interesting, some of it isn’t, and the suspicion lingers that half an hour could easily be cut without any great loss to theatregoing. Edwards is, as ever, excellent as Trebell, considerably more likeable and charismatic than Will Keen was in the Almeida’s production of a few years back, but even he struggles with a character who has to become an arch seducer for ten minutes in the first act, and the rest of the time has to play a stiffly principled man undone by the only spontaneous thing he has done in his life. Williams is wonderful as the unhappily married aristocrat who he is besotted by, but short changed by departing abruptly before the interval and not returning. As my friend said, ‘I hope she has a really good book to read in the second half.’
Michell’s production features a modernist design by Hildegard Betchler that is both attention-grabbing and also rather distracting in places; Trebell’s office, in particular, feels like the sort of light and airy space that any Shoreditch tech entrepreneur would be delighted to inhabit, rather than a stuffy political lair. The distorted music has much the same effect, adding a contemporary touch when none really needed to be there. It is a pity that Michell didn’t see the exemplary revival of Rattigan’s After The Dance at the NT in 2010, as it might have given him some ideas; indeed, it is a pity that that superb production isn’t being revived now, with or without Benedict Cumberbatch in his final role before Sherlock made him an unlikely megastar. Waste does not live up to its name, but it’s hard not to feel that this isn’t the latest production from the NT that disappoints.
Waste at the Lyttleton Theatre until Saturday 19th March 2015. Running time approximately 3hrs including an interval. Tickets from £15. For more information and to book visit the website.