An Edwardian Don Draper

Harley Granville Barker upset the censor with his study of a political idealist and bedroom bounder

Theatre
Callous idealist: Charles Edwards (left) as Henry Trebell in “Waste”, with Olivia Williams as Amy O'Connell (photo: Johan Persson)

Never mind the fuss about Harley Granville Barker’s Waste, which incurred the censor’s wrath in 1907 for its verboten themes of adultery, illegal abortion and suicide. Its true daring lies in basing a plot on Church of England disestablishmentarianism. Be still, my beating heart.

Barker is better known these days for introductions to Shakespeare tragedies than for his own work. But his writing skills are evident in Waste. Roger Michell’s tense production at the National’s Lyttelton (which runs until March 19) underlines the contradiction between the idealism pursued by Henry Trebell (Charles Edwards) — who wants to strip the Church of its riches to fund education — and the callousness of his personal life, which consists of hurried trysts with Amy O’Connell (Olivia Williams), the unhappy wife of a vengeful Irish Republican. “Why have you been talking to me as if I was someone else?” she asks of her lover, who discourses eloquently on the uplifting impact of mass education, but reduces his encounters with her to a brutal sexual functionality and an eye on the clock — a Don Draper of the Edwardian boudoir.

The lasting appeal of Waste is the distance of the political class from the society around it — assuring uncomfortable echoes today. Trebell reminded your critic of the comment once made of Gordon Brown: “He loves humanity — it’s just people he has trouble with.”

The slippery nature of political loyalty becomes apparent as sexual scandal engulfs Trebell, first lauded by Cabinet colleagues for his vision, then driven to suicide when his party disowns him.

There are a few inconvenient problems with Waste, alas. Trebell is such an overbearing, shouty presence that it is hard to feel much sympathy for a man who colludes in a back-street abortion and suffers the consequences. The other flaw for modern audiences is that Granville Barker seems more interested in the impact of Amy’s abortion on Trebell and his career than in her fate. The plot is a bit mechanical. True, Granville Barker does write strong roles for women — Amy’s desire for sexual emancipation is brilliantly brought out by Olivia Williams, and Trebell’s loyal sister suffers collateral damage, unheeded by those who inflict it. The clash of morality and pragmatism confronts us with the question that preoccupied Bertolt Brecht in The Good Person of Szechuan: does the world make it worthwhile to behave well?

Perhaps the most potent parallel is the continuity of social networks that seem as relevant in the age of Cameron and Osborne as in pre-First World War Britain. At the end of the play, a combination of human error, bad judgment and the grinding, mechanical nature of politics has undone a talented individual — the waste of the title. But is Trebell a construct of a warped political Establishment, or are people with his combination of strengths and flaws, now as then, attracted to the political game? That question lingers, long after the curtain descends on a theatrical curiosity.

Der Geizige (The Miser) at Berlin’s Deutsches Theater was my choice for a theatre night in Berlin. The tragi-comedy of Molière’s grisly old hoarder, so obsessed with his stash of gold that he wants to marry his daughter to an ancient ruin to enhance his pointless fortune, is fertile ground for director Martin Laberenz. His version glories in the zanier element of Molière’s yarn: maidens fainting at the sight of their intended, and Harpagon’s fetishistic relationship with his dosh and a treasure trove hidden symbolically in mud.

The original plot provides a maypole for this production, around which many distracting ribbons are twirled. We get tour de force physical comedy, in which the grand schemer Frosine ends up dangling acrobatically from the edge of the stage, held by the ankles by Harpagon (Michael Goldberg), who is simultaneously trying to keep his silk dressing gown from slipping off. It’s a scene written by Molière to depict a calculating young woman flattering a vain old goat, but here is stretched beyond realism and into levels of sheer bonkers playfulness that recall the best of the Théâtre de Complicité’s work.

Similar elastic acrobatics apply to the text, which is sporadically thrown overboard while the actors argue about their billings, rivalries with neighbouring theatres, ticket prices and people who leave seats empty. It sounds random, but like the best disruptions in theatre it works because it is so cleverly controlled. And if anyone wants to carp that it is not what Molière intended, I think he might have had the understanding for youthful high spirits and the random, inventive joy of comedy to applaud.

Finally, The Father by Florian Zeller (in a version by Christopher Hampton) has transferred from the Tricycle to the West End, albeit for a short run — proof that the best new foreign works can flourish on the London stage. Zeller is an extraordinary new talent, somewhere between Ionescu and Pinter with inventiveness of plot thrown in.

The setting is an uptight Parisian home, in which the father (Kenneth Cranham) suffers from Alzheimer’s, annoying his daughter (the feline Lia Williams) who may have Papa’s interests at heart — or just be motivated by a plan to join her lover in London.

Just as we have settled into one of those domestic dramas in which self-interest competes with family loyalties, however, the plot darkens. Is the father really the more mentally unstable of the two — and is his decline real or a stratagem to unearth unpleasant truths about a family mired in lies?

Zeller feels like the heir to Yasmina Reza, who asked awkward questions about the hypocrisies of the French bourgeoisie. Zeller’s writing is more spare and he flirts more outrageously with the absurdism that can entertain any twist of perspective or plot. In Miriam Buether’s design, we share the experience of losing faculties and growing confusion as the music between scenes lurches and glitches and pieces of furniture are displaced or disappear altogether.

The stage has started to take dementia seriously and The Father is a major contribution to that. A moment when a kiss between father and daughter feels like a parting brought about by mental decline is as devastating as it is tender. Tricks and twists  culminate in a moment of stark, commanding empathy — the essence of great theatre and the key to understanding the worst of life’s woes.