Man and Superman
26 February 2015
The one thing you can count on in a play penned by George Bernard Shaw is at least the promise of prolixity. The great dramatist is not known for his capacity for succinct exposition. An inquiry with box office staff elicited the guarded advice that proceedings in the Lyttelton were expected to run “about three hours and forty minutes. It was four hours when they opened but they have shaved off twenty minutes.” It was, then, not unexpected that the first half of the production ran for just short of two hours.
What was unexpected was how that time was full of laughter and mirth and how it seemed more like twenty minutes. Simon Godwin’s stunning production of Man and Superman, now playing at the Lyttelton Theatre as part of Nicholas Hytner’s farewell season at the National, makes Shaw’s 112 year old four Act play, a philosophical tennis match of volleyed ideas and ideals, burst with wit, innovation and utter delight.
Godwin’s production sits in marked contrast to the other “big ideas” play now playing at the National: Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem. The production is vastly superior, the casting near perfect and the presentation of the text more vivid, engaging and thoroughly intoxicating. But, more than that, Shaw’s skill in Man and Superman is that he creates characters with whom it is possible to empathise, who are real (including Lucifer himself) and about whom we care. Shaw simply out-Stoppards Stoppard. Godwin shows you why.
Shaw’s play is in four Acts. The third of these contains a section often cut, sometimes played on its own, under the title Don Juan In Heaven. In the full four Act version, this sequence appears as a dream of the main character, Jack Tanner. It is set in Hell and involves the Devil and three of the main characters (sort of) from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. One of the inspired things Godwin does here is to not divide the halves of this production along the lines of Shaw’s Acts. So the first half continues into Shaw’s third Act, ending soon after it takes the turn into Tanner’s dream.
The result is tremendously effective. The first and second Acts are set in and around a great English house; the third starts in Sierra Nevada, exotic but grand, but the dream takes place in Hell. The shift is sudden, unexpected and seamless (thanks to Christopher Oram’s delicious design). We see Tanner don the boots and coat of times past, but we don’t know why. He seems unhappy and his environs now are plain, featureless, an off-white box representing endless nothing. An old woman is there too. She asks the strangely garbed Tanner where they are. He replies “Hell”, and the blackout signalling interval occurs.
This is both remarkably attention-getting and deftly clever. Anyone whose modern-day attention span is challenged by the time already spent in the theatre is jolted out of complacency. Two questions burst forth – What the Hell just happened? and What the Hell is going to happen?
As far as I could see, no one left at interval. Godwin’s strategy was too enticing.
The production is not so much modern dress as modernised – Oram’s costumes have the feel of Shaw’s time while looking more up to date. This underlines Godwin’s point: the issues which engaged Shaw’s mind and wit back then have equal application today. There might be mobile phones in 2015 but the philosophical debate is still incredibly resonate, the differences between class still profound, the idle rich are still idle and rich. Modernising the production emphasises the wit and topicality of Shaw’s writing in a simple, direct and unfussy way. It’s inspired.
So is almost all the casting.
Front and centre, shouldering a Herculean workload of complicated, dense dialogue, is Ralph Fiennes in absolutely cracking form. He has unflagging energy and although he rattles the text at a remarkable speed, he gives full value to each word and makes clear, uncomplicated sense of every passage. He is phenomenal, like a bolt of electricity confined to the stage. Towards the end of the play, as the comedy takes precedence over the philosophical discussion, Fiennes is channelling his inner James Stewart to great effect, complete with hang-dog expression and contorted physicality.
Fiennes has a glorious voice and he knows how to use it to best effect, unflaggingly energising everything he does. And he clearly, brilliantly, creates a different character in the Dream sequence set in Hell, one that is absurdly funny and magnificently depressed, as all committed thinkers are. Fiennes is the Superman in this production.
Tim McMullen, in the performance of his career, is simply glorious as the philosophical Brigand, Mendoza, and then steps up a notch to deliver a suave, scurrilous and sublimely funny Devil in the Hell sequence. His entry as the Devil, complete with exquisite and well stocked drinks table, is one of the sharpest and funniest I have seen on the Lyttelton stage. McMullen embodies decadence as the Devil; it’s a masterclass in vocal seduction.
His Brigand is equally joyful – and provides a fresh and funny counter-point to the other theorising in which Fiennes’ Tanner engages. Nicholas Le Provost embodies the high minded morality of the English middle class with unerring accuracy as the delightfully named Roebuck Ramsden. His spluttering indignation at Tanner’s questionable thinking is deliciously judged and he and Fiennes work wonderfully together in the word traps and games set by Shaw in the first Act.
Le Provost also manages an entirely different character in the Hell scenes and he is perhaps at his best in them. He enlivens the Commandant (slain by Don Giovanni/Juan) with a wry, sprightly humour and dressed all in white Mozartian frock-coat (complete with Heavenly wings) proves to be utterly irresistible: the would-be funster who, tired of the boredom of Heaven, opts for a life as a truant in Hell. His arguments for so doing are deftly delivered. It’s a delicious, clever performance.
Ferdinand Kingsley, as Ricky Ticky Tavy, has the hardest role: it is very difficult to play someone who is perpetually wet. But Kingsley manages it nicely, with a gentle and very endearing turn. Shaw seems to be suggesting that the character is secretly gay, and Kingsley keeps that possibility open. Very clever that.
Faye Castelow is superb as the determined, spirited Violet and Christine Kavanagh is equally superb as the weary mother of two who wishes others were her children. Corey Johnson is perfect, quite perfect, as the loud, obnoxious, highly-strung, rich American whose contempt for the English middle class is volcanic and mountainous. Nick Hendrix is startlingly handsome, but a bit one-dimensional, as the manly American son who is willing to lose everything for Violet.
There is a marvellous turn from the gifted Elliot Barnes-Worrell as Enry Straker, Tanner’s chauffeur and reality check. The relationship between language, class and society would be explored in greater detail by Shaw in the more well-known Pygmalian, but Enry is a delightful creation who, as Tanner puts it: “takes more trouble to drop his aitches than ever his father did to pick them up. It’s a mark of caste to him. I have never met anybody more swollen with the pride of class than Enry is.”
Indira Varma plays Ann, Tanner’s nemesis. She is beautiful and fiery, a completely deceitful mischief maker. The performance half-works, but it is tiresomely shrill at regular intervals and lacks the kind of attractive genial charm that someone who is known to be a liar and manipulator needs to possess in order to get away with the deceit. Varma’s best work came in the Hell sequence, where her character is confused about the attitudes of the others she encounters there. Varma’s Ann is not a catastrophe, but it doesn’t work as exceptionally as all the other main performances.
Simon Godwin has achieved something quite miraculous here. This production of Shaw’s Man and Superman will set a benchmark for decades to come. It is alive in every possible way, crackling with style, sense and sensibility. With Fiennes, McMullen and Le Provost in top form, it is a bewitching and beguiling night at the theatre, which will leave you thinking about serious matters with a smile on your face.
Man and Superman runs at the National Theatre til 17 May 2015