I’d never heard of Harley Granville Barker’s 1907 play Waste, but I decided to see it because Charles Edwards was playing the main character Henry Trebell. Banned by the censors when it was first written, the play is about an idealistic Independent MP who is encouraged by the Tories to support a controversial bill. However, when Trebell has an affair with a married woman who later dies after a backstreet abortion, the ensuing scandal leads the Establishment to close ranks and drive out Trebell.
Trebell is a fascinating character: complex, idealistic but strangely awkward in the presence of women, including his lover, Amy O’Connell (Olivia Williams). Edwards manages to make him sympathetic despite the situation he finds himself in. I sometimes found myself slightly bored by the play, as the long discussions on politics left me cold, but I was always engaged when Edwards was on stage, and the play’s ending made a strong impact on me. I found the character of Amy more difficult to warm to, despite her sympathetic plight. The set is impressive and rather Art Deco in tone, reflecting the changes made to the play by Barker in the 1920s.
The play seems to suggest that the “waste” of the title refers to Edwards’ political abilities, squandered by self-serving MPs who see him as a liability. To an extent I agree with this idea, but I also thought that Amy’s death marked an even more significant “waste” – a waste of a life – and this was given secondary importance in the play.
Despite originally having been written over a century ago, Waste remains an important and relevant play, with political scandals still commonplace and the conflict between private lives and outward respectability still an issue. It’s not the most gripping play I’ve ever seen, but it is worthwhile – and the ending is particularly striking.