The final instalment of our post-Christmas London Theatre Splurge was to see Waste at the Lyttelton, written by Harley Granville Barker in 1907. It was refused a licence by the Lord Chamberlain, was subsequently revised in 1927, and finally staged in a public theatre in 1936. It was high time I saw this play, having researched stage censorship in my early 20s. I still find anything to do with censorship (particularly on stage) totally fascinating, as you will realise from this review! In October 1907, 71 dramatists wrote to complain about the extent of censorship and Waste was a major catalyst for the revolt. Barker spent much of his post-Waste life campaigning for the withdrawal of stage censorship. There seemed to be a particular concern that when a serious play, which questions the establishment and makes you think, utilised subject matter which the censor would list under “dicey”, it was more likely to fall foul of the Lord Chamberlain’s red pen than, say, a drawing-room comedy with similar content. Brookfield, the individual Examiner of Plays to whom it fell to read and judge the play, loathed it so much that he dubbed it Sewage.
Henry Trebell is a very able MP, Independent and much admired; and the Tory government, under the leadership of Cyril Horsham, wants to encourage him to join the cabinet. Trebell is particularly interested in putting forward proposals for the disestablishment of the Church of England – a thorny issue, but one that attracts support in certain influential areas. However, Trebell’s private life is a bit of a mess. He treats women with flirtatious contempt; as a result, most eligible women don’t touch him with the proverbial bargepole, but some women enjoy the danger of his attention. One such woman is Amy O’Connell, estranged from her once respectable husband (who’s now only gone and joined Sinn Fein, would you believe, Lord love a duck). Sometime between the end of Act One and the beginning of Act Two, Trebell and Amy have had a relationship; they have parted; he has gone travelling, and returned; and she has tracked him down to his offices to announce that she is pregnant. Not the best situation for a prospective cabinet member. Worse, she insists on having an abortion. He doesn’t go along with this idea but is powerless to stop her. What happens next? I won’t spoil it for you if you don’t already know.
It was the whole business of abortion that was too much for the censor. The final scene of the play, which also contains rather iffy subject matter as far as the censor was concerned, was pretty much ignorable in comparison to the abortion. As long as this illegal operation (as they termed it) was being bandied about on stage, the play would remain unlicensed. Apparently particular offence was taken at the suggestion that a doctor (so revered in those days) would undertake such a procedure. Barker refused to yield to Brookfield’s pressure to “moderate” his plot and his terminology, and thus it went unperformed for almost 30 years, apart from a private performance under the aegis of the Stage Society (one of those “theatre club” ways you could use to get round the censor).
Even today, abortion is a very hot topic and the subject of much debate. Disestablishment of the Church, too, is very relevant, especially with the current trend in developing faith schools, and continued uncertainty as to what part bishops should play in the House of Lords. And we still love to snigger over the sex lives of politicians, especially when it thwarts their political ambitions. There’s a lot of very meaty substance to this play and Mrs Chrisparkle and I both found it very engrossing, well-written, not without humour and extremely thought-provoking. So I was baffled when, en route to the bar for our half-time Shiraz, I overheard a guy saying to his friend: “it’s a good play but this is SO badly directed…..” and then he went out of earshot.
True, it’s not staged like a typical Edwardian drama. There are no comfy leather armchairs, warm fires, leather-bound libraries, or French windows with glimpses of tennis courts in the distance. Instead, Hildegard Bechtler has designed a monochrome, featureless set, with huge walls that slide from side to side to compliment the Lyttelton’s own safety curtain which has always amused me with the way it goes up and down. Apart from some messy desks at Trebell’s house, props are kept to a minimum. It is rather a disquieting set-up, but I think it works, encouraging the audience to concentrate on the spoken word rather than peripherals, creating a stark and sterile environment where only black and white survives. When the walls move for scene changes, your sight is struck by the geometric shapes that are created, and with much of the stage out of sight there is a suggestion that you are literally only seeing part of the bigger picture. The design was all rather clever and eerie, and I rather enjoyed the tricks that the designer played on me, including that rather significant waste paper basket.
There are also some fine performances. Charles Edwards is perfect as Trebell, balancing public decency with private impropriety, married to his work, brashly defending his situation to the Tory VIPs, upset at Amy’s pregnancy but more for how it will inconvenience him than for what it does to her. Olivia Williams is also excellent as Amy, nicely spoilt and outspoken in the first scene so that you get a really good insight into her character, then rather coquettish in love in the second. Once she is pregnant she gives a great account of someone who is deeply upset and trying to hide it, knowing she will have to go into battle alone, with her reputation shattered. It’s a very moving performance.
Sylvestra le Touzel gives great support as Trebell’s faithful sister Frances, trying to guide him in the right direction but in reality indulging him to make serious mistakes; it’s a very convincing portrayal of someone who has sacrificed themselves for another. There also a few terrific cameo performances – Paul Hickey as Justin O’Connell comes in unexpectedly as the soul of reasonableness, with a very fine dignified performance; Louis Hilyer is superb as the bluff and gruff self-made northerner Blackborough; and perhaps best of all Doreen Mantle as Lady Mortimer, politely observing everything that goes on but delivering some deadly lines with wicked timing; she can fill the Lyttelton with laughter with just one blink of an eye. But it’s a long and ambitious play, during which the entire cast regularly come in and out of the action, creating an excellent ensemble feel. We both particularly enjoyed the third act, where Trebell’s actions are dissected and discussed with no thought for anyone or anything but the Good of the Party. It reminded Mrs C of a Management Team meeting.
I highly recommend both the play and the production. Riveting stuff, and still very relevant today.
Production photos by Johan Persson