Public office vs. private lives, the right to choose, and a sex scandal threatening to derail political advancement … could a play be more modish? But before anyone accuses the playwright of shamelessly courting relevance, Harley Granville Barker’s “Waste” actually dates from 1907. And if arguments about idealism and pragmatism might seem clotted on the page, Samuel West’s impeccable ensemble headed by a mesmerizing performance from Will Keen reveals the drama to be a stealthy gripper.
The play’s ruthlessly intelligent analysis of the extraordinary ramifications of an illegal abortion caused the drama to be banned until 1936 when, as now, it was presented in a version revised and updated to 1926.
Henry Trebell (Keen) is a member of Parliament but an independent in every sense. The Conservative party rightly regards him as having one of the most brilliant minds of his generation and wants to co-opt him. This he’s willing to accept because joining the cabinet will allow him to front a revolutionary bill to disestablish the Church of England and mount massive, much-needed reform to the ailing education system.
His fatal, unexpected attraction to married Amy O’Connell (a highly strung Nancy Carroll) may be ill advised, but Trebell is a master of control, so the short-lived affair is kept safely under wraps — until, that is, she arrives in his office to announce that she’s pregnant by him and intends to have an abortion.
The fallout from her decision is quietly devastating, and not just for Amy and Trebell. Surrounded by power players with seriously vested interests, the two of them are shown to be part of an extraordinarily wide political web that exerts an increasingly vise-like grip not only on them, but on the audience.
West’s production gets off to a dangerously stilted start. At the end of a weekend house party of political grandees, the guests sit listening to their hostess, Lady Julia (a beautifully understated Jessica Turner), playing the grand piano. West opts to have the lady play doleful music by Chopin that establishes so mournful a pace that in the awkwardly blocked ensuing dialogue, everything threatens to grind to a halt.
Yet once the stuffed shirts and bored wives have had their say, the mood picks up with the dynamic confrontation between Trebell and Amy. Keen is positively serpentine as his makes his move. Their encounter feels not just illicit but thrillingly dangerous against Peter McKintosh’s Wedgwood blue drawing-room set sepulchrally lit by Guy Hoare.
The play next moves into political mode. West’s pacing picks up considerably in the ensuing scenes, in which ideological arguments are uppermost.
The power of “Waste,” however, lies not just in the depth of its tragic handling of a brilliant career wrecked but in its increasing breadth. Like ripples on a pond, it shows the sacrifices that almost every character is shown to be willing — or unwilling — to make in favor of a belief.
Superbly detailed and lived-in as all the performances are — including Hugh Ross’ marvelously cunning party leader, Peter Eyre’s pompous but passionate Lord Charles and Bruce Alexander as Trebell’s compromised but loyal friend Wedgecroft — everything pivots around Keen’s Trebell.
Zeal is relatively easy to play, but Keen unobtrusively does far more than show an utterly single-minded man. He makes severity sexy, his punctiliousness offset by an almost surreally smooth physicality a dancer might envy.
Frighteningly plausible as a man for whom almost every response is measured, Keen never anticipates. This makes his rapid decisionmaking compelling and ignites every scene with the politicians engulfed in the chicanery as the scandal threatens to blow.
Phoebe Nicholls is equally affecting in the slow-burn role of Trebell’s self-denying sister. The tenderness of their final scenes is all the more affecting for their repressing of a potentially overemotional outpouring.
West is hardly the first director to triumph with Granville Barker. Even David Mamet is a fan — though in his recent adaptation of the playwright’s “The Voysey Inheritance,” Mamet had the temerity to cut almost an hour’s worth of the text. West has no truck with such dramaturgical interference. He understands it’s the accretion of vibrant detail that gives this writer’s work such extraordinary grandeur. West’s handsome but hard-edged revival is the playwright’s best possible defense.