After years of shameful neglect, Harley Granville Barkers plays seem to be back in vogue.
Following excellent revivals of The Voysey Inheritance at the National and The Madras House at the Orange Tree, the Almeida now stages a compelling and convincing account of Waste, Barkers highly complex political drama.
The plays own history is equally complicated. Barker wrote it in 1907 but it was banned by the Lord Chamberlain, ostensibly because of its sexual allusions, but possibly due to political censorship too. Barker revised it in 1926 (the version used here) but it was not performed in public until 1936. In many ways Wastes portrait of a murky political world where idealism is replaced by pragmatism, and where private sexual misconduct can derail a promising public career, is as relevant now as it was when it was written.
The action revolves around Henry Trebell, a brilliant young Independent MP with progressive ideas who is co-opted into a Conservative administration in order to the push through Disestablishment of the Church of England from the State. It is an extremely ambitious project, which will see religious centres transformed into places of education, requiring remarkable political skills.
However, Trebell has a brief affair with Amy OConnell, a beautiful and unconventional woman who is separated from her husband. After becoming pregnant, against Trebells wishes she goes to a backstreet abortionist, and dies as a result. When her estranged husband finds out it seems that the whole sordid truth will emerge at the inquest, threatening not just Trebells position but also his partys future.
Samuel Wests superbly balanced production brings to dramatic life Barkers subtly intelligent arguments, so that we never feel this is merely a dry debate but a matter of real importance where personal fates are determined as well as national policy. Peter McKintoshs elegant set designs, which revolve between aristocratic country-house drawing room, Trebells own office, and the party leaders wood-panelled town-house library, show an exclusive world where rich and powerful men meet to broker deals behind closed doors. And Guy Hoares beautifully varied lighting reflects the shifts between major and minor moods.
The show boasts some of the finest ensemble acting on the London stage this year, with every performance counting. Will Keen hints at pent-up passion and inner conflict behind Trebells apparently single-minded rational determination to achieve his goals. As Amy, Nancy Carroll gives a very moving portrait of a feisty woman who is destroyed by her love for a man who seems incapable of acknowledging his emotions, as well as by societys hypocritical stance towards women, while Phoebe Nicholls suggests a touching vulnerability underneath the cynical self-sufficiency of Henrys unmarried sister Frances.
Jessica Turner lends political hostess Lady Julia Farrant a sophisticated condescension, Michael Thomas is her blunt-talking husband George Farrant, Richard Cordery oozes power as the cigar-smoking industrialist Russell Blackborough, Hugh Ross is the coldly calculating leader Cyril Horsham, and Peter Eyre gives the moral traditionalist Lord Charles Cantiloupe a sonorous presence.
Although Barkers updating to include references to the First World War, the Labour Party and Sinn Fein do not always sit easily with the Edwardian context of the play, Waste is still a masterly expose of the machinations of the ruling classes. It is also a damning indictment of the cruel waste of human potential due to social forces beyond individuals control.