Lyttelton, National Theatre London (**** for the play and cast, ** for audibility and sightlines!)
We keep discovering Harley Granville Barker as though he were a new playwright. Yet, as Richard Eyre movingly points out in the National Theatre programme, his name ought to `resonate’ with every visitor to the NT building as one of the major figures in its creation (though whether it might be the better if we didn’t have it in terms of soaking up resources is an argument for another time and another day).
Scholar/ writer/director/actor/ theorist, Granville Barker was the Edwardian theatrical polymath par excellence. Of the three plays that regularly surface, The Voysey Inheritance, The Madras House and Waste, it is the latter that was hailed when first produced privately as `the finest English tragedy since Hamlet.’
But Waste, with its discussion of abortion, a woman’s right to choose and its unsentimental, clear-eyed view of politics and politicians, not to mention its prescience on `the Irish question’, was initially banned. It had to wait nearly 30 years before receiving its first public performance in 1936 having undergone many changes in between, not least from its author as to his intentions.
Roger Michell’s revival finds it yet again as a play for `our day’; a grown up play, tight as a drumstick in its distillation of ideas and tremblingly consonant with the heated issue of personal morality in public figures. How many modern-day politicians have we seen falling on their metaphorical swords because of some sexual peccadillo?
As Henry Trebell, the idealistic lawyer, brought in to steer through a Bill on the disestablishment of the Church of England but brought down by a lady love, Charles Edwards (surely becoming the Paul Scofield de nos jours) turns in a blinder of a performance: subtle, then again incandescent with fervour and belief, and not wholly sympathetic as a character.
Nothing in Granville Barker is that clear-cut. Nor Michell’s production which suffers from empty spaces, an unwieldy sliding panelled set, unfortunate sight-lines and yet again a certain amount of inaudibility. (Why directors don’t check these days to make sure actors can be heard at the back of the Circle remains a mystery. When customers are paying over the odds for their tickets, it’s also shameful).
Ultimately, though, the play triumphs thanks to Edwards and a nearly (apart from a dreadful, stereotypical Labour MP) pitch-perfect cast led by Olivia Williams as Trebell’s unfortunate lover, Amy O’Connell, Sylvestra le Touzel stolid as a rock as Trebell’s devoted sister, Frances and Gerrard McArthur’s outstanding lizard-eyed Tory MP.
Meaty, pertinent and infinitely classy.
Walter Kent: Hubert Burton
Lady Mortimer: Doreen Mantle
Lady Julia Farrant: Lucy Robinson
Frances Trebell: Sylvestra Le Touzel
Lucy Davenport: Emerald O’Hanrahan
Amy O’Connell: Olivia Williams
George Farrant: William Chubb
Russell Blackborough: Louis Hilyer
Butler: Ian Jervis
Henry Trebell: Charles Edwards
Sir Gilbert Wedgecroft: Andrew Havill
Lord Charles Cantilupe: Gerrard McArthur
Cyril Horsham: Michael Elwyn
Edmunds: Stephen Rashbrook
Justin O’Connell: Paul Hickey
Bertha: Fleur Keith
Director: Roger Michell
Set Designer: Hildegard Bechtler
Lighting Designer: Rick Fisher
Music: Matthew Scott
Sound Designer: John Leonard
Movement Director: Quinny Sacks