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Published 3 October 2008

A prominent politician’s career threatened by a scandalous relationship about to hit the headlines, or worse, be rumoured in society. It all sounds pretty contemporary, yet Harvey Granville Barker’s Waste, which opened at the Almeida last night, was written in the early 20th century.

This is obvious from the opening drawing room scene. Women in flowing evening dresses listen to the playing of a piano while the men talk about politics in another room – probably over brandy and cigars. A different age it might be, but the issues and concerns are much the same.

Granville Barker’s play is full of political posturing and jostling for position as the prominent Conservatives prepare for government, then try to engineer their way out of a tricky situation which comes from the outsider in their ranks, independent MP Henry Trebell.

In the hands of Will Keen, Trebell is a focused, intelligent, quick-witted man, who has foregone love and emotional attachment for the pursuit of his political raison d’etre, the disestablishment of the church. A short dalliance with Nancy Carroll’s bold, forthright, out of-place Amy O’Connell leads to an unwanted pregnancy and a scandal that can’t simply be swept under the carpet.

For all the personal turmoil within the piece – Trebell’s panic and pro-life stance, O’Connell’s belief in her right to choose – it is the political movement around them that really holds the intrigue. Like a game of chess with higher stakes, the players wait for the right moment to make their moves, drawing people in before unleashing their trap. True friendships in such circles, it seems, are rare.

Richard Cordery’s cigar-smoking Blackborough, while looking like a shifty factory owner, is the most honest of the lot, up front about politics being about votes not ideas. Hugh Ross’s Horsham, who has been playing the game for years, is all too aware of the right moves to make, but is somehow likeable with it. Yet the arch-manipulator of the drawing-room set is Jessica Turner’s upper class Grand Master, Lady Julia Farrant whose engineering and falseness knows no bounds.

It probably shouldn’t be surprising that not much has changed in nearly a century; that the same arguments about abortion, the church, education and politics keep coming around. There is certainly no question of relevance about Samuel West’s decision to revive Waste at a time when American politics stands on the brink of history and the British government finds a new crisis every other day. But it is still a touch depressing that, as Horsham points out, the best and most promising politicians, who could actually make a difference, can be so easily derailed, not just through their own personal actions, but by the way those actions are used and exploited by their peers.  



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