Shut up, I'm proud of that line.
On paper, Henry Granville Barker’s Waste (an appropriate title on oh so many levels) is very much my sort of play. Famously banned by the censor when it debuted, Waste tells the story of the implosion of the career of talented independent MP Henry Trebell, so obsessed with the Bill he has been tasked with stewarding through Parliament (disestablishment of the Church of England - thrilling stuff) that his affair with a married woman barely troubles him until she dies at the hands of a backstreet abortionist whilst trying to get rid of his child. Politics, scandal, social conscience - so many of my boxes ticked. And yet…
Waste is unquestionably the worst thing I've ever seen at the National Theatre. To be honest, I'm struggling to think of anything I've seen at any theatre that’s much worse.
Perhaps the worst thing about this mess of a production is that it is deeply, deeply tedious. Things that may have been controversial and sexy when the play was written - lengthy debates about the relationship between Church and State, for example - are very much not anymore and nobody involved seems to have thought about how this would translate. All of the dialogue is so turgid that I think I’d turned off by the end of the second scene. The first members of the audience walked out after about half an hour.
This is not helped by the fact that the plot and the characters are so clichéd and facile that a twelve year old could have been responsible. I'm not sure why the characters are even given names to be honest. They’re so one dimensional that they may as well just be called Idealist Crushed By The Man, Plucky Northern Industrialist, Nasty Establishment Prime Minister, Spinster Sister, Outsider Who Tells It Like It Is and so on. It’d be much easier to remember. The plot plods along to a singularly inevitable conclusion with all the excitement of watching beige paint dry and the lazy attempts at making satirical points (‘he’s an ideas man and we don’t need those in politics hahahahahahahahaha’) might have been edgy a hundred years ago but now have all wit of a particularly dull concrete pillar.
Further pain is heaped on the poor, unsuspecting audience (a good chunk of whom had left in the interval and frankly I wish I’d joined them) by performances that can be charitably described as patchy. Charles Edwards does his best with what he’s given in the lead role, though he’s hardly the most convincing charismatic politician I've ever seen, but beyond that there’s very little to praise. Even the usually excellent Olivia Williams is shrill and annoying as the wronged mistress, though hardly helped by some particularly insipid lines. For reasons best known to someone else, a lot of the cast deliver their lines as if. There is a. Full stop. After every second. Or third. Word. And the actors playing the ‘establishment’ figures employ the sort of ‘politician’ accents and delivery that should just be banned in professional theatre.
A final mention must go to the setting which at best looks half finished and at most actively broken. My particular favourite is the series of mechanical walls that move across the stage to mask the changes of scene, which would be a neat device did they not move so slowly that I genuinely thought they’d broken down completely on a number of occasions. Though to be fair they did provide the one genuine moment of drama of the evening when towards the end of the second act they opened and closed so slowly that you could hear the audience (further depleted by people leaving during the second act) wondering aloud whether the play had finished. And of course the SYMBOLIC WASTE PAPER BASKET (I'm writing it the way I assume it must’ve been written in the stage direction) which should win some kind of special prize for the clunkiest, least subtle metaphor in the history of theatre. When it was revealed that it was still on the stage, just knocked over, during the curtain call I got serious giggles which I suspect was not the intention.
I don’t particularly enjoy slagging off productions to this extent (I'm lying) but there’s really nothing to admire in this production. Don’t waste your time and money on it, unless you’re someone I don’t like in which case I'm sure you’d enjoy it.
If you still want to see Waste for some reason, it plays at the Lyttleton at the NT until March 19th.