Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Thought for the Day • WASTE • Almeida Theatre • 2008

H. Granville Barker, Clement's Inn, March 27th, 1906.

H. Granville Barker, Clement’s Inn, March 27th, 1906 [Wikimedia]

At the preview performance I saw, Samuel West’s production of Waste was unbearably DULL and SLOW. It wasn’t just me reflecting the wasteland of my own disillusioned soul. I saw two couples sneak out of the theatre at the interval. I heard comments afterwards on the lines of ‘the actors didn’t seem to really care or be interested in what they were saying’. Most of the actors were not engaging with each other or the audience. OK, not true of Nancy Carroll, vivid and passionate if miscast playing a neurotic, sensation-seeking Flapper, and Phoebe Nicholls’ pent-up bitterness as the faithful sister working for her hero’s salvation (Granville Barker’s New Woman tends to be more like her literary grandmother, the Victorian Saviour of the Hero, than a suffragette) just about carried the final scene – but West’s direction and the respectful reviews in the main newspapers appear to be driven by intellectual snobbery.

That’s why you’ll hear some people praising it. Enduring the tedium and apprehending the play through veils of Westerly obfuscation allows them to congratulate themselves on their own cleverness. It is the New Theatre of the Arcane. It is a reactionary response to the dumbing down of the performing arts on TV and it’s letting down its own cause. Most of us who go to the theatre want to be entertained and moved and stimulated by the lives of others, not bored to death by them.

The author of Waste declared that: “A play is anything that can be made effective upon the stage of a theatre by human agency.” Waste is the least commercially adaptable of Granville Barker’s performed plays and tricky to produce entertainingly with integrity. It is uncompromising, in its length (three hours traffic at the Almeida is too long), its dry debates about cabinet politics, its detachment from the deliberately unsympathetic central characters, its avoidance of sentiment and melodrama despite the plot’s potentially tabloid-friendly abortion and suicide. Without the notoriety of its ban by the Edwardian censor, it might have had even fewer than the three revivals of the last twenty-five years.

When it works, when the huge risks of the play’s intellectual prolixity and dramatic minimalism (both deaths are, of course, off-stage) pay off in a delicate balancing act by all the human agencies involved – and I have fond memories of the 1985 RSC production doing just that – the depth of the audience’s thoughtful reaction is all the more impressive because it has been engaged with artistic honesty and restraint. Granville Barker believed in the superiority of live theatre over the novel as the art form for attacking social problems: “theatre is the quickest and most vivid medium of working things out”.

The salient words, the directorial notes, from a man who knew the craft of theatre inside out and famously advocated a natural and quickly spoken delivery of Shakespeare, are “effective”, “human”, “quickest”, “vivid”. Under the polemical defence of expanding theatrical forms you can detect the basic injunctions of any shrewd actor-director-producer: production values, pace, passion and humour. Good actors transform a lecture into live theatre and make the most pedestrian dialogue fly along. That’s the point. It’s not about making a play hard work for the audience. Whether you like it or not, there’s got to be a quantum of pimping. The play must be kept pure, but you’ve got to make it attractive.

OK, I was very tired when I saw it at the Almeida, but so will a lot of working people and tourists be when they go to the theatre. Except for rare individual performances, the only consistently satisfying artistic aspect of London theatre I’ve seen recently is set design, which, in the tradition of Granville Barker, is allowed to flourish on the Fringe and subsidised theatre, while spoken drama dessicates. Reassuringly, Waste has an impeccably elegant set designed by Peter McKintosh which serves the play rather than holds up the action – superior, in that respect, to the superfluous and unintentionally ludicrous uses to which Alison Chitty’s set was put in Peter Gill’s over-milked production of The Voysey Inheritance at the National a couple of years ago, in which over-enthusiastic street sweepers and what looked like the back of Freddy Eynsford-Hill, either having a quick pee or about to sing ‘On the Street Where you Live’, made distracting appearances.

Directors can pimp too much. Just letting the actors say their lines quicker instead of burdening them with unnaturalistic line-readings would be a start. Voysey is a more conventionally constructed play than Waste and a lot harder to kill. You wonder if Granville Barker would have thought both these ponderous productions embarrassingly old-fashioned.

All this was said better nearly a hundred years ago: “A good play should exhilarate and entertain. It is a silly mistake to think of a good play being serious and solemn….the drama must be alive”. Harley Granville Barker gave his opinion in an interview with the New York Times, in 1915, before the abandonment of splendid Lillah McCarthy for his rich second wife and the acquisition of the hyphen and the retirement from producing and playwriting, apart from an experiment in form too cerebral to be performable, none of which enigmatic behaviour has to mean a negation of everything he had done and said about theatre.

It’s a fashionable meta-story, like the one about the greatest English playwright who after looking into the human soul and writing the most memorable poetry in the language to describe it, gave up the theatre to go and be a property-developer in the provinces while the market was still good. What does it mean for theatre? Nothing, probably.

© Michael Brabazon 2008

Originally published on R&V 09-10-08

3 comments on “Thought for the Day • WASTE • Almeida Theatre • 2008

  1. PJR

    A great theatre writer – Granville Barker, I mean – and a pleasant reminder of Michael Brabazon, who knew his onions.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: First Night Design | ‘And let me see thee in thy women’s weeds.’ | First Night Design

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

The Secret Barrister

Independent Blogger of the Year, The Comment Awards 2016 & 2017

Heritage Calling

A Historic England Blog

British Pathé

Updates from the Archive on WordPress

Homeless up north

My experiences of my time sleeping rough on the streets of North east England

Free Vintage Illustrations

Free full-color vintage illustrations in the public domain! Curated from postcards, books, ads, and more antique media from the 19th to early 20th-century.

Disappointed Idealist

Ranting from the chalkface

Notes from the U.K.

Exploring the spidery corners of a culture and the weird stuff that tourist brochures ignore.

Rethinking Life

Art and the philosophy of life

Edinburgh Eye

Equality, cats, and tea.

Silver Screenings

Ruth's Old Movie Reviews

Music Hall Alice

All things Music Hall...

Those Who Will Not Be Drowned

Mainly about history.

rebel notes

david rosenberg


theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013...

The Immortal Jukebox

A Blog about Music and Popular Culture

Ace World & Blogger News

This site has been designed to provide reports together with news events as they happen when they happen across the world of bloggers and news sites

Dave Plummer Saxophonist

Wedding & Events Saxophonist - Isle of Wight & Hampshire


Books, Reviews and bookish thoughts

Mallory James

Writer - Author - Historian

Iris Theatre

Supporting the next generation of professional theatre practitioners


The site for 'Madcap Mabel' - Mabel Normand


The site for and by adults with ADHD

Scandalous Women

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013...


theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013...


theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013...


theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013...

Woman the fuck up

Hear me roar. Writer, mother, actress, maker of beautiful things, witch. Not taking any more shit and neither should you.


Dedicated to Women Pilots of the Solent

Improbability Archivist

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams, Doctor Who,

WCH On This Day

Working Class History anniversaries every day


Yoga classes and aromatherapy products in Andalusia, Spain.

History And Other Thoughts

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013...


theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013...

Catherine Meyrick

Historical Fiction with a touch of Romance

Lucy Brazier

Writer, Author & Maker of Mischief


Subject to change.

The Müscleheaded Blog

"Nothing Exceeds Like Superfluous Jejunity "

%d bloggers like this: