A scathing exposure of social hypocrisy as well as a reversal of theatrical conventions are provided by George Bernard Shaw in his witty and provocative classic Man and Superman, which is revived in an immaculate new production, directed by Simon Godwin, at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre.
Jack Tanner, celebrated radical thinker and wealthy bachelor, seems an unlikely choice as guardian to the alluring heiress Ann. But she takes it in her assured stride and, despite the love of a poet, she decides to marry and tame this dazzling revolutionary. Tanner, appalled by the whiff of domesticity, is tipped off by his chauffeur and flees to Spain, where he is captured by bandits and meets The Devil. An extraordinary dream-debate, heaven versus hell, ensues. Following in hot pursuit, Ann is there when Tanner awakes, as fierce in her certainty as he is in his.
This is a sprawling, extremely strange play, part comedy for manners, part philosophical debate. It is constructed on an epic scale and, when first performed in its entirety in 1915, come in at a staggering five hours. The National team though, have managed to reduce it to an absorbing three-and-a-half hours, whilst still retaining Shaw’s exploration of the big questions about morality, the meaning of life, consciousness and the battle of the sexes.
What is particularly commendable about Godwin’s production is that it gives the play’s most bizarre and taxing scene a renewed vitality and fascination. It is a dream sequence where Tanner proves that he is no one’s idea of a libertine, insisting that men are women’s slaves, and where the Spanish brigand turns into the devil. As the two men tussle, the play launches into a heated argument about willpower and idealism.
In less skilled hands this work might seem merely a cerebral and dated drama, but Godwin gives it a fresh lease of life, so the work seems as relevant today as when it was first staged.
Designer Christopher Oram’s striking sets – a glass wall taking on multiple colours, a carriage drive in the park of a country house near Richmond, a study, an evening in the Sierra Nevada and the garden of a villa near. Granada-strengthens the impression that the play is taking place in the real, rather than a fairytale, world.
But it is the terrific central performance by Ralph Fiennes, certainly one of the best in his career to date – as the rich bachelor John Tanner, a brilliant critic of society, that really gives this revival its special fizz. He is supported by excellent work from Indira Varmal who gives his sparring partner Ann a beguiling mix of calculation and charm, Tim McMullan as a helplessly lovelorn Spanish brigand and a suavely ironic Devil who holds count in Hell over a well stocked drinks trolley, Faye Castelow as a hard-headed romantic fugitive and Nicholas le Prevost as a firmly entrenched conservative who considers himself an advanced thinker.
In short, then, this ambitious, exhilarating production provides a rich and rewarding evening in the theatre.
Runs in repertory until May 17.
Box office: 020 7452 3000Last modified: April 7, 2021