'Man and Superman': Theater Review

Man and Superman Production Still - H 2015
Johan Persson

Man and Superman Production Still - H 2015

An immaculate rendering of one Shaw's best-known but least produced plays

Ralph Fiennes stars as a gentleman revolutionary pursued by an amorous heiress in George Bernard Shaw's Don Juan comedy at the National Theatre.

"Whew! How he does talk!" one character remarks about the irrepressibly loquacious Don Juan, played by Ralph Fiennes in George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman. "They'll never stand it in Heaven." But adventurous audiences will embrace it on the earthly realm of London's South Bank, and in U.K. cinemas when Simon Godwin's production for the National Theatre is broadcast live on May 14 this year.

A dazzling display of rat-a-tat-tat verbal dexterity that showcases Fiennes' charisma, skill and, above all, stamina, this handsomely crafted revival honors the integrity of Shaw's vision while managing to keep this potentially unwieldy, seldom-mounted beast of a play boxed up within a digestible three-and-a half-hour running time, including a 20-minute intermission. Opening a hundred years after the play was first performed in its entirety — including the third-act symposium of ideas set in hell that many productions eschew — director Godwin's modern-dress version rediscovers a vital spirit in the Edwardian-age material that feels somehow timely and still provocative.

Man and Superman was first published as a book in 1903, in which the already copious text of the four-act play itself is sandwiched between an argumentative preface addressed to the Times' theater critic Arthur Bingham Walkley (who disliked Shaw's work) and assorted polemical appendices "written" by the play's main character, the philosopher revolutionary John Tanner.

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That Pale Fire-like complexity of construction hints at the sloshing superabundance of the material, a bubbling cauldron of ideas that keeps spilling over the boundaries of literary and theatrical conventions. And that antic, intellectual messiness is partly what makes it such exhilarating cerebral fun — especially in the hands of Godwin and his on- and offstage collaborators. But viewers with a low tolerance for speechifying and metaphysical debates, who perhaps only came to see the Harry Potter films' Voldemort in the flesh, are advised to stay well away. This is not Shaw for beginners. (Fiennes himself isn't starting from scratch, having played the dual role of Tanner and Don Juan in a radio production many years ago.)

That said, theater newbies drawn to this by Fiennes' bravura performance in Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel may come away more satisfied since there's a definite touch of M. Gustave's imperious, orotund flair in the actor's incarnation of Tanner, the central figure in the play's topsy-turvy take on Edwardian romantic comedy.

Much to his chagrin, confirmed bachelor Tanner has been dragooned into being the co-guardian of his childhood friend Ann Whitefield (Indira Varma, whose work at the National includes Remembrance of Things Past and Othello, and who more than holds her own against Fiennes). It's a responsibility he's forced to share with stuffy Victorian-minded gentleman Roebuck Ramsden (Nicholas Le Prevost).

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Although she plays the ingénue in public, Ann is a wilier young lady than she seems, determined to snare Tanner as a husband rather than wed wet poetaster Octavius "Ricky-Ticky-Tavy" Robinson (Ferdinand Kingsley). Meanwhile, Ricky-Ticky's pragmatic sister Violet (Faye Castelow) has scandalized the circle with her secret union to a man she refuses to name, which all serves as grist to Tanner's mill as he sermonizes on free love, the iniquity of marriage and, in passages which may grate with modern audiences, the true nature of women as guardians of "the Life Force."

Despite Shaw's knack for a well-turned aphorism, on the page, the country-house shenanigans can be dreary stuff, like an episode of Downton Abbey ghostwritten by John Stuart Mill. But Godwin's production has pared the raw material down sensitively, and with the assist of the whole cast's crack comic timing the dialogue zings and sparks with the ruthless precision of good farce.

Dressing the ensemble in relaxed modern clothes — the sort of smart frocks and well-pressed jeans you might see on any West London trustafarian these days — also blows some of the potential fustiness off and adds contemporary edge, as does the use of mobile phones and a hash pipe for the scene where the New Age-y brigands debate anarchist vs. social democrat policies on a Spanish hillside. It's in this scene that Tim McMullan, playing both the lead brigand and later Satan himself, gets a chance to show off his own skill as a comic performer, making this feel very much an ensemble piece, and not just a vehicle for Fiennes.

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Christopher Oram's set, dominated by a white-paneled background on which video designer Luke Halls' semi-abstract projections flicker, pleasingly balances prop-laden scene-setting with sparseness that enhances the 1915-meets-2015 quality, while trapdoors and bursts of lighting help pull off some simple but effective theatrical illusions.

However, the greatest pyrotechnic displays emerge from the performers' mouths as reams of dialogue flow effortlessly forth without a stumble. If some of it feels a bit repetitive and rhetorical, the fault is Shaw's rather than the production's, and if he were around today to see he'd be impressed with how much Life Force the cast manages to imbue into the text.

Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Indira Varma, Tim McMullan, Nicholas Le Prevost, Ferdinand Kingsley, Christine Kavanagh, Clare Clifford, Elliot Barnes-Worrell, Nick Hendrix  
Director: Simon Godwin
Playwright: George Bernard Shaw
Set & costume designer: Christopher Oram
Lighting designer: James Farncombe
Sound designer: Christopher Shutt
Music: Michael Bruce
Video designer: Luke Halls
Illusionist: Darren Lang
Movement director: Jonathan Goddard

Presented by the National Theatre