THEATRE / Laying waste the idealist; Waste Old Vic, London

Harley Granville Barker casts a penetrating eye on political sleaze
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The Peter Hall Company's repertory season at the Old Vic gets off to a stimulating start now with his production of Harley Granville Barker's Waste. "Sex, sleaze and politics for the general election," runs the ad, which would sound a shade opportunistic or a more suitable selling line for some Doug Lucie drama, if it weren't for the fact that Barker actually delivers in all those departments.

A famous casualty of censorship, this play was refused a licence in 1907 on the ostensible grounds of its outspokenness about sexual relations and its reference to "a criminal operation" (ie abortion). The real reasons for the ban were, in all likelihood, political: the play casts a penetrating, deeply undeluded eye on the country's cynical inner circles of power. Using the author's 1926 rewrite (which updates the proceedings so as to bring in the new bargaining strengths of the union-backed Labour Party, references to Sinn Fein, etc), Hall calls the piece, "the most effective play about politicians since Shakespeare".

That's probably pushing it a bit (I can think of a longish list of rivals for that title headed by Danton's Death.) Barker's drama is certainly remarkable, though, for the acuteness with which it demonstrates two types of waste: that the idealist will always be disposable among men principally concerned with forging deals that help them cling to power; and that to be an idealist can involve the wastage of whole areas of a man's personal life.

Michael Pennington is excellent in the central role of Trebell, a maverick independent MP who wants to disestablish the Church of England and to devote the money released to the cause of a great new educational system. An eminently practical visionary, he has made getting his Bill on the Statute Book a condition for aligning with the Tories who, on the verge of regaining power, want to ditch the Opposition for years to come by stealing some of its programme. The hollow expediency of the party's commitment to Trebell and his plans is exposed when the married woman who was briefly his mistress, dies after a back-street abortion and the politician is threatened by scandal.

I've often complained that Pennington is a cerebral, chilly, unsexy actor, but these qualities are perfect for Trebell, a precise, cant-hating, clinical man who even seduces Felicity Kendal's overly arch Amy as if impatiently working through a committee agenda. The play brings him to a tragic sense of the cost of these politically valuable attributes and of placing all his capacity to love in a cause. This recognition is prompted partly by his being discarded by the Tories. The superb, darkly droll scene of a conclave at the home of Denis Quilley's urbanely cynical leader, dramatises the ironic, half-accidental circumstances of his being dropped. There's no problem from the wronged husband (Greg Hicks) who agrees to keep quiet, or from Trebell, who says that, if need be, he'll own up. The difficulties are hypocritically manufactured by an elderly, bumptious, unloved MP, as soon as he picks up the fact that one of his enemies in the party will resign if Trebell is ditched. A great programme of reform expires amidst pettiness and patch-ups.

It is also paternal feelings for his dead child that push Trebell towards suicide and, to give these weight, the play has (uncomfortably, in my view) to demonise Amy for her decision to abort. But that's not to doubt the genuinness of the hero's tragedy: discussing himself as if he were already posthumous, Pennington's Trebell retains, heartbreakingly now, the donnish, glacially smiling methodicality of manner that had masked the human waste.

To 26 April (0171-928 7616)

Paul Taylor