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Waste review at the Lyttelton, National Theatre – ‘remote rather than resonant’

Olivia Williams and Charles Edwards in Waste at the National Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson Olivia Williams and Charles Edwards in Waste at the National Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

This austere production of Harley Granville Barker’s play of political scandal, written in 1907 and reworked two decades later, has a chill about it. While there’s been a fascinating through-line of thought to a lot of Rufus Norris’ recent programming at the National Theatre, and it’s possible to grasp what drew him to this play, as staged here it feels remote rather than resonant.

Charles Edwards plays Henry Trebell, a man with bold plans to reform relations between Church and state. But his career takes a hit after a brief, loveless liaison with the estranged wife of an Irish Republican. She gets pregnant, but doesn’t want the child, and dies trying to get rid of it.

Hildegard Bechtler’s set looks like one of Ben Nicholson’s most clinical exercises in the abstract. It consists of a series of curved and sliding panels that make the most of Lyttelton’s capacity for the cinematic, everything painted in shades of cream and beige, mushroom colours, a huge moon hanging above. The design only heightens the play’s stultifying crispness.

Edwards and Olivia Williams, as the unfortunate Amy, give fine, if cool, performances, but neither is very sympathetic and it’s Sylvestra Le Touzel, as Henry’s sister, who gives the production its (faint) pulse. Even in the moments when emotion intrudes on proceedings, Roger Michell’s production remains reptilian: men in suits debating ideas while a woman dies; that’s presumably intentional and part of the drive behind the production, but it makes for a difficult – and long – watch all the same.

The press performance was paused owing to a medical situation in the audience. Despite this, the cast and company ran the production to its conclusion. The Stage does not believe this incident has a bearing on its criticism.

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An austere, bloodless production of Harley Granville Barker’s play of political scandal