Yesterday Kath and I went to see George Bernard Shaw’s famous play, “Man and Superman”, at the Lyttleton Theatre at the National. A Saturday matinee performance, which started at 1.30 and finished at 5pm. Three and a half hours, which absolutely flew by. A brilliant, engrossing production, which starred Ralph Fiennes as John Tanner, the rich, idling iconoclast: the breaker of taboos, the political radical, the seeker after truth, and, in the end, the conventional man.
The play was written and first performed in the early 1900s, a turbulent time politically and socially, as new ideas challenged Victorian orthodoxy and the working man started to have a say. And women – or some women – started to break free from traditional shackles. Shaw was at the forefront of all of this, and “Man and Superman” fizzes with all these disturbances. At the same time, its enduring popularity comes from the fact that it is, in essence, a romantic comedy, and a genuinely funny one at that. Shaw himself called it “A Comedy and a Philosophy”. The philosophy runs through the play, and gives it its edge; but the heart of the philosophical discourse lies in a densely written third act, in which Tanner, captured by Spanish brigands in the Sierra Nevada (suspend disbelief please!) falls asleep and descends into a dream in which he becomes Don Juan in Hell and ends up in debate with the Devil about the meaning – or not – of everything!
Strangely, I’m unfamiliar with Shaw’s work, though not his reputation; and so I was on quite a learning curve yesterday – and a fascinating one. I learned that the play has often been performed without that third act, and stands up as a satirical romantic comedy without it. I can see that; but after yesterday, I couldn’t contemplate a version without its philosophical heart. It clarifies what drives Tanner on, and prepares him for his capitulation to Ann, the wealthy young heiress, whom he has known since childhood. As he describes it, his ensnarement, his suffocation by the boa constrictor. The outrageous radical, the thinker of great thoughts, the man of impulsive action, the challenger of orthodoxy, succumbing to the inevitability of love.
The play succeeds on so many levels. It’s brilliantly written for a start, and this production, directed by Simon Godwin, sharpens and modernises it, so that it is even easier to relate to. It feels like a good thing to be watching as we go through our own political turbulence, as the status quo, the establishment orthodoxy, the received economic model, the political settlement, feels increasingly untenable. Being the National Theatre, the sets are stunning – quite simple in some cases, but so complementary to the play. And, above all, the acting is just superb. Ralph Fiennes is, of course, the star. His role, as John Tanner, dominates the play: he must have at least two-thirds of the lines. In the Hell scene, the other characters even joke about his verbosity! Fiennes plays the role extravagantly, all gesticulation and expression. But also with wit and sympathy. You engage with him. I was reading his biography beforehand. It mentioned the Harry Potter films. For some reason, I couldn’t remember whom he’d played. Must have been one of the good guys, I thought to myself. And then I remembered… Voldemort!
There wasn’t too much of Voldemort in this performance – although it was about someone who’d like to revolutionise the world…
The supporting cast are excellent too. Indira Varma, as Ann, displays the manipulativeness and disingenuousness of her character, while remaining likeable and sympathetic. Her part is crucial to the play: not only because the love interest revolves around her, but because she portrays the “new woman”, challenging those Victorian norms of subservience and domesticity. Even though Tanner suspects her of trying to trap him in that life of domestic non-bliss.
And Tim McCullan, as the brigand leader Mendoza and the Devil, is very funny. Mendoza, the Che Guevara prototype, who used to be a waiter in the Savoy, and bores his fellow rebels, as well as the captives, with his poetry of his lost love, Louisa, who turns out to be the sister of Tanner’s driver, the working class sage, Henry Straker. A daft coincidence, which, I think, gently mocked dramatic convention. And a very louche Devil, presiding over a Hell which sounds a lot of fun (thus offending all religious norms at the time?), although its unthinking pleasures are denounced by Don Juan/Tanner, who wants to strive for a higher purpose. For the Superman.
It’s a joyous production, which got a great reception at the end of the performance. Your attention never wavers, even when Tanner is expostulating at length about life forces, pleasure’s flaws and the dangers of women in that third act. It’s genuinely funny, as well as thought-provoking. Essentially it’s good because the play is good; but the production and the acting updates it, makes it real for us today, and completely captivates.
Yeah, I think I liked it!
It’s on until 17 May, and while it’s sold out, further tickets are released from time to time.
All are from Google Images. The top photo is just of the programme cover. The Hell scene is from the National Theatre blog and the photo is by Johan Persson. He also took the last photo, of Mendoza and Tanner, which I got from the Official London Theatre website. Ann and Tanner is from the Times online review and is by Donald Cooper/Photostage.