Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Theatre Review: Man and Superman

Until now, my entire knowledge of Bernard Shaw came from two sources: My Fair Lady and the obscure but brilliant Stephen Sondheim musical The Frogs

The latter includes a great song about Shaw which espouses his genius whilst wryly noting that he’s “a little short on brevity”. I think that sums up my opinion of the National Theatre’s triumphant revival of Shaw’s Man and Superman (running time: three and a half hours, cut down from an original five and a half) rather neatly. 


Man and Superman tells on one level a very simple story: woman (Ann Whitefield, played with aplomb by Indira Varma) wants man (Jack Tanner, a masterful Ralph Fiennes), man resists, woman persists, woman gets man. But this isn't a play about a story, it’s a play about ideas. Big ideas: the nature of humanity, masculinity, womanhood and class. It’s complicated - and I’d be lying if I said I followed it all completely - it’s long and it’s utterly brilliant.

Perhaps I'm a previously undiagnosed Shavian, because I absolutely loved the intricately crafted dialogue that fills this play and that I’d initially been very nervous of. It’s beautifully constructed, has a rhythm that’s almost musical (set some music behind this and you’d almost have an opera) and, most importantly, very very funny. Properly laugh out loud funny. Laugh until your face aches funny. Shaw just uses language fantastically well and it’s a joy to listen to, even in the occasional passages where you begin to wish he’d get to the fucking point. His construction of satire is as funny, if not funnier, than any that’s come since. There’s a universality and a timelessness to the dialogue, and the humour in particular, that gives it a feeling of relevance that many plays of a similar era no longer enjoy. 

It’s helped along by a sympathetic updating and excellent staging. The show is performed in understated modern dress and designed by Christopher Oram, who did fantastic work on the Michael Grandage West End season and does fantastic work here. Most affecting is the set he creates for the Don Juan in Hell dream sequence, where Jack Tanner becomes the infamous libertine and discusses the ideal nature of man (and woman) with the Devil. It’s a tricky scene - a dream sequence, in Hell, that deals with some very complicated, occasionally almost Nietzschean, ideas, with such scant links to the rest of the plot that many productions opt to omit it entirely - but, for my money, one of the most effective sequences in this production. 

Eschewing the traditional sets of the rest of the show entirely, Oram has created a wall of video panels which change with the dialogue. They glow blindingly white to herald our arrival in Hell, turn red when the Devil is giving his closing argument for his vision of the nature of humanity as the pursuit of pleasure and project ghostly human figures when Jack spells out his competing vision of humanity, evolution and the pursuit of the creation of the Superman. On a set stripped almost bare it’s an incredibly striking, memorable and ‘otherly’ image. Stripping it back completely also really helps focus the attention on the dialogue, which I certainly found the most difficult to follow and frustratingly verbose in the play.

The crowning glory of this production though is its performances. Indira Varma brings a modernity to the cunning, charming, sexy and generally kick ass Ann. Tim McMullan does double duty, bagging all the best lines in the process, as a love lorn Savoy-waiter-turned-Spanish-brigand and the Devil and steals scenes left, right and centre as both. Elliott Barnes-Worrell plays Jack’s street smart chauffeur with an appealing youthfulness that’s a perfect counter for his boss’ cynicism. 

And then there’s Ralph Fiennes. Barely off stage and rarely not speaking for the entire three hours plus runtime, there’s an energy to his performance that makes it mesmerising. As a feat of memory alone this performance would be worthy of mention - he has a mind boggling amount of lines and hits every one with perfect comic timing and a delivery that translates even his most complicated speeches into something understandable. His Jack Tanner, all masculinity and out-thrust crotch, treads the perfect balance between being likeable and a bit of a shit; his Don Juan is passionate and earnest without being boring. Either would be great on their own, to fit both of them into one show and maintain the energy level to do so successfully is remarkable. All of that said, his best moments come when he’s not speaking. Even from the back row of the circle his exasperated twitches and resigned shrugs were so effective. I'm not sure I've ever been as affected by a performance based on the physicality alone. Also, I've never really understood the appeal of the elder Fiennes before (Joseph was always more my bag) but I certainly do now. I would quite happily spend eternity and then some in Hell with this Don Juan, y’know.

So yeah; great play, great writing, great performances and a slamming hottie for a leading man. What more could you want?

Man and Superman plays at the Lyttleton at the National Theatre but is sold out except for day tickets and returns. It’s getting the NTLive treatment on May 14th.

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