Gripped by a scan­dalous waste

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - THE­ATRE JOHN NATHAN

Lyt­tel­ton, Na­tional The­atre

WHEN THE Lord Cham­ber­lain banned Har­ley Granville Barker’s 1907 “English tragedy,” it was for rea­sons of sex­ual modesty. Barker’s hero is Henry Tre­bell, an MP who is per­suaded to work in a Con­ser­va­tive cab­i­net as the min­is­ter re­spon­si­ble for dis­so­ci­at­ing Church and State.

This bach­e­lor’s life-defin­ing op­por­tu­nity to af­fect the course and char­ac­ter of his coun­try hits the buf­fers when his af­fair with a mar­ried woman re­sults in preg­nancy and po­ten­tial scan­dal.

Yet, de­spite the Lord Cham­ber­lain’s mo­tives, it’s not the sex­ual in­trigue in this play that grips. Rather it’s the cold cal­cu­la­tion with which the body politic re­sponds to it.

There is al­ways some­thing fas­ci­nat­ing about how the pow­er­ful op­er­ate be­hind closed doors. And in an age where for­mal­ity and cor­rect be­hav­iour (what­ever that is) were held as citadels of virtue, there’s some­thing en­thralling about see­ing that ed­i­fice crum­ble and the ar­ro­gant pom­pos­ity of men turn into panic.

Roger Michell’s stylish, though over­long, pro­duc­tion clev­erly ac­knowl­edges the episodic struc­ture of Barker’s play. Tow­er­ing sliding flats glide across the huge stage as in­ex­orably as the pass- ing of time. Within this cool set­ting, Olivia Wil­liams puts in a fine per­for­mance as the emo­tion­ally over­wrought Amy O’Connell, Tre­bell’s lover. She is a char­ac­ter who is the op­po­site of what pa­tri­ar­chal Bri­tain sup­posed women should be and, to that end, Wil­liams trans­mits a phys­i­cal dis­gust felt by O’Connell for an un­wanted child.

But the lau­rel goes to Charles Ed­wards, among the most watch­able ac­tors of our time. No one is more con­vinc­ing as English up­per class.

If that sounds as if his range is nar­rower than it should be, don’t be fooled. In­stead of the in­sou­ciant charm de­ployed for pre­vi­ous roles, there’s a cool, cal­cu­lat­ing in­tel­lec­tual core to his Tre­bell. It al­ways fas­ci­nates, even if its loss feels less of a tragedy to us to­day than Barker would have liked.

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