— Poster image
Playwright, producer and director Harley Granville Barker, a contemporary and friend of George Bernard Shaw, helped launch British theatre into the modern age. Granville Barker’s Waste, like most of Shaw’s work, is a play of ideas, a series of complex conversations around the political intrigues involved in a fictitious Tory government’s plan to disestablish the Church of England in 1927. Unfortunately, Granville Barker the playwright was no Shaw.
Waste remains a period piece, lacking the irony, wit, and theatrical intelligence that keep Shaw’s work fresh. But this typically ambitious United Players production has its virtues. William B. Davis directs a cast of 16, many of them doing fine work (Louise Phillips, for example, back on the stage after far too long a time) as characters who seem largely extraneous to the play’s central points, some of which themselves get lost in the elaborate shuffle.
The main character, Henry Trebell, played with earnest eloquence by Cedric De Souza, is an ambitious, Independent MP whom the Conservatives plan to bring into government to guide the disestablishment bill through the House. The plan hits a bump when Henry gets romantically entangled with Amy O’Connell (Helen Martin), whose estranged husband (James Gill, in an effective cameo) has gone over to the Sinn Fein. Or maybe not. O’Connell’s politics turn out to be pretty much a red herring in the melodramatics that ensue—plot points which I can’t give away.
To his credit, Granville Barker mostly avoids onstage melodrama. The play’s sensational events occur offstage. He also, admirably, has great respect for his audience’s intelligence, staging lengthy, complex conversations about theology, politics, and even abortion. The trouble is there’s very little drama of any kind in all the talk, and the structure of the play involves whole scenes as well as multiple characters that never pay off. What I found most interesting in the end is the play’s utter cold-heartedness—and the resemblance of De Souza’s Trebell to Kash Heed, another politician in trouble.
Davis’ direction respects his audience; there are no explanatory program notes about the relationship between the Church of England and British parliamentary government, no historical timelines, not even a definition of the term disestablishment. He gets good work from most of the large cast, including Rob Ruttan and Douglas Abel as two Tory politicians, and Dick Pugh as Trebell’s doctor and confidant. John R. Taylor’s handsome set, serving as drawing room and government offices, sprawls across the Jericho Arts Centre stage.
Waste, the play, is not an illustration of its own title, although it could have been a good deal more efficient.