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The Guardian 15th March 1997, Michael Billington

We talk a lot about political theatre. Very few plays, however, deal with the way the power-structure actually operates: Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Schiller’s Wallenstein, Trevor Griffith’s Occupations, David Edgar’s The Shape of the Table leap to mind. To that list one should add Harley Granville Barker’s Waste, one of the best political plays of the century and one that gives Peter Hall’s new tenancy of the Old Vic a tremendous send-off.

Waste, dealing with a radical politician destroyed by private scandal, had a famously chequered history. Granville Barker’s original version, written in 1907, was banned by the Lord Chamberlain: an act of political censorship masquerading as moral indignation. As Penelope Gilliatt once pointed out, “In terms of sexual conventionality, the play commits no more offence than a Victorian melodrama.” But the ban helped to kill off Barker’s adventurous management of the Royal Court. In 1920 the play was finally licensed and Barker took the opportunity to re-write it in the light of recent political events. It is this 1926 version that Peter Hall currently presents.

But why is the play so powerful? Partly because it deals with the intersection of politics and morality. Henry Trebell, and Independent MP, is the architect of a Bill to disestablish the Church of England and to use its funds to finance new schools and colleges. The Tories, expecting to regain power after an election, plan to absorb Trebell into the Cabinet and appropriate the Bill. But when Trebell has a fling with a married woman who dies after aborting his child, the Bill is scuppered and Trebell discarded.

On one level, the play is about a tragic flaw in the English character: possibly one in Granville Barker’s own. Politically, Trebell is an idealist: emotionally he is heartless. He is fired by the idea of turning unwanted country houses and abbeys into new universities; yet he casually seduces Amy O’Connell, discards her instantly and, even after her death, brutally dismisses her as “a trull”. Granville Barker pins down the divorce between ideas and sensibilities that runs right through English life: something Michael Pennington’s superb performance as Trebell perfectly catches. There is an astonishing moment when, having learned that Amy is bearing his child, he returns to the practical business of political manoeuvre with almost schoolboy relish. The Bill, you suddenly realise, is his real baby: the one that he is most anxious not to see aborted.

But Granville Barker, who spent much of his life on committees, also understands the dynamics of power; and his play’s most compelling scene is the one that shows the putative Tory MP realising that he will have to jettison Trebell to hold his Cabinet together: Trebell is not so much ruined by scandal – the silence of the dead woman’s husband is easily bought – as by a battle for the Chancellorship of the Exchequer: Granville Barker’s real originality lies in showing the political process at work: in particular,  the way a radical proposal that would transform British life is at the mercy of private ambition. And it is not difficult to see parallels today with Tory politicians distancing themselves from Europe in order to improve their chances of gaining the leadership.

There is one premise in the play that I find hard to swallow: the idea that the Conservatives would back a radical Bill to rob the Church of its vested interests. But what Granville Barker understands is the way politics work; the way visionary ideas are bedevilled by short-term ambitions and private character-flaws. Although he inherits the conventions of society melodrama, he was also a sexual realist. At one point Trebell says to Mrs O’Connell, “When you arched the instep so, I could hear the stocking rustle” – a sudden touch of Pinter in a play about high political society.

It is the ideal work – unfamiliar but analytical of English public life – with which to kick-start the new Peter Hall regime at the Old Vic. And he directs it with the same alertness to the interaction of character and ideas he bought to Oscar Wilde; though I wish he would do something about a downstage chair that, for those on the extreme left, blocks the view of Denis Quilley’s Machiavellian Tory leader during a crucial scene.

The casting throughout is on the highest level: fine performances not only from Pennington but from Felicity Kendal as his wantonly abandoned mistress, from Anna Carteret as his celibate sister who, like himself, is a stranger in matters of the heart, from David Yelland as a doctor privy to political secrets and from Peter Blythe as a High Church Tory who, as someone says, explains why the symbol of the early Christians was a fish.

The Old Vic promised 12 plays performed in repertory over the next 40 weeks: the irony is that, if it continues to operate on this level, it will offer a direct challenge to the National Theatre which was largely the brainchild of none other that Harley Granville Barker.

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