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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Waste
Almeida Theatre Autumn 2008

This is a disappointingly lifeless production of what is admittedly a difficult and talky play. Director Samuel West has not conquered the problems inherent in the 100-year-old text, and has made directorial choices that add further challenges to audience focus and stamina.

A contemporary and colleague of Shaw's, Harley Granville Barker shared the ability to write plays full of ideas that were nonetheless dramatically alive. (The only thing he lacked was Shaw's epigrammatic wit, though an exchange like 'I'm interested in ideas.' - 'Then why go into politics?' isn't bad.)

Waste is about a very promising politician brought low by a sexual scandal (His mistress dies after a botched abortion), and it is filled with Shavian discussion of ideas. I've seen it twice before, in a dreary 1985 RSC version and a quite alive and engrossing 1997 Peter Hall production that proved it can be done.

One problem inherent in the play is that, although it is full of intellectual debate, most of it is irrelevant to the dramatic situation. The central character is working on a bill to separate church and state and commit large funding to new schools and universities, and much of the talk is on those issues, as he expresses his utopian plans and tries to win other politicians and churchmen to his side.

The problem is that this has little to do with any of the characters as characters, and director West and actor Will Keen have not found a way to make the man's passion for his work connect to his personal adventure.

There are other problems with the text as well. One of the most interesting and dynamic characters - the mistress - dies halfway through, and she is missed. And Barker first wrote the play in 1907 and then rewrote it in 1926, and some elements, like the social and political role of women or the dominance of a ruling class, are caught in inconsistencies he never quite smoothed over. (It is hard, for example, to accept that the mistress could change from the independent bohemian modern woman of the first act to the helplessly romantic Victorian of the second.)

Again, it is left to the director to cope with these challenges more successfully than Samuel West has.

A further obstacle to the play's success can be laid fully at the feet of director and actor. One of Will Keen's frequently demonstrated strengths as an actor is the ability to project both passion and intelligence, but he and West have chosen to repress the first quality completely.

He plays the man as a cold fish throughout, so that we not only can't get into him, but we can't really believe either his passion for the woman, his dedication to his work or his despair when it is taken away from him. And that - the wasteful loss of a brilliant man - is what the play is all about.

But even scenes that Keen is not in have difficulty coming alive. I clearly remember from the Peter Hall production the dramatic tension of a sequence in which party leaders try to talk the dead woman's husband into suppressing the scandal and then turn around and realise they'll have to disassociate themselves from the hero anyway. But the scene is played limply here, with no sense of anything really at stake or of the mix of hypocrisy and realpolitik driving the men.

Nancy Carroll is more believable as the free spirit of the opening scene than as the one-dimensional fallen woman later. Jessica Turner and Phoebe Nicholls have equal difficulty with equally ill-defined woman, and none of the men really register except for Richard Cordery, who characteristically steals all his scenes with quiet and solidly realistic underplaying.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Waste - Almeida 2008