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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.
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