Lyttelton, National Theatre – until 19 March 2016
POLITICS AND SCANDAL; IT WAS EVER THUS…
You’re an MP, a clever lawyer with cross-party popularity, newly invited into Cabinet to steer through a Bill to disestablish the Anglican Church and reform education. You’re passionate about this cause: defying the “barren minds and wills” of other MPs, arguing with vigour and humour.
But you never quite fitted in to the high-Tory social circle at the heart of things. And just as you’re preparing for the big push, declaring that you are “In love!” with the Bill and the cause, in comes a nervy, distressed woman in a cloche hat with whom you tangled (very briefly, and not in love at all) in a previous moonlit scene. Announcement: “There’s a danger of my having a child. Your child”. She hasn’t been near her husband for a year.
Charles Edwards is magnificent as the MP Trebelle , expressing both a workaholic passion and a cool but decent core which makes him meet with revulsion her insistence that she doesn’t want it. She demands, with rising hysteria, help towards abortion. He offers to help her go abroad and have it and be divorced. “You’d marry me?” “That is the usual thing” says Edwards glumly. She, however – and this is Olivia Williams on top ranting form – is resentful. “I can’t see why you don’t love me just a little!” she wails, though the reason is increasingly clear to the rest of us: because he’s a dry stick that way, and she is a pain in the neck. Something she proves by instantly switching off the emotion and getting gay and flirty when other men come into the room; not to mention her wail that it’s all “Beastly! No civilized woman wants children growing up around her to prove she’s getting old!”.
During the interval – for this is a political play, the female dilemma merely an inciting-incident – she dies of a botched abortion, and the long central scene sees a meeting of party grandees deciding whether or not to dump Trebelle, thus endangering the Bill, or whether they can square the estranged husband into not outing him as the adulterer at the inquest. (It’s Paul Hickey, sourly Irish, observing “She was a worthless woman, we are brothers in misfortune”).
It is riveting, director Roger Michell moving his cast with deft tone and body language to the degree that my companion (a seasoned political animal) gasped that it was horribly credible in any period of the Party. Gerrard McArthur’s aristocratic, chilly religiosity as Lord Charles hardly moves from the sofa, sitting in judgement on them all ; Louis Hilyer is northern, pragmatic and willing to dilute the legislation to get rid of the scandal; others dithering and hope. A wonderful and timeless political line is “In this sort of case, one talks a bit and then does The Usual Thing”. They bin Trebell.
It is, for him, the end: Edwards, movingly weary, expresses the despair. “I’ve never, so to speak, given myself away before. To be part of something…! Having lost myself in it, the loss of IT leaves me a dead man”.
Harley Granville Barker’s play was written in 1906, banned for being near the knuckle sexually and religiously, and revived and revised thirty years later. But over that gap of time, and the nine decades since, little changes in the cuthroat world of political intrigue. Only the cloche hats have gone. I took a while to warm to the play – the opening country-house scene is chillier and duller than it need be, partly due to Hildegarde Bechtler’s irritatingly minimalist, geometric sliding scenery (I suppose they were anxious not to Downto-nize it with too much Edwardiana, so fair enough).
But it gathers pace, and all the cast is strong: Emerald O”Hanrahan as the bluestocking Lucy and Sylvestra Le Touzel as Trebell’s sister are particularly striking. The end is grimly moving as the young secretary, Walter, angrily grieves the waste of Trebell’s talent. It’s Hubert Burton’s debut on the London stage, and he deserves an extra bow because on press night his important moment was delayed by a dead stop: a heart attack in the stalls meant a 25 minute wait for an ambulance. The last five minutes were played out to a reducing house with the medics and patient in situ. Respect to the family, who allowed it; and to Burton who achieved his moment with grace and sincerity.
box office 020 7452 3000; nationaltheatre.org.uk to 19 march