Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw (review by Matt Gambrill)
Part of the Utopia's NT Live series (14 May 2015)
George Bernard Shaw had an impressive beard. Inside this beard, as well as the remains of several dinners and some loose change, he kept his ideas. Ideas of comedy, philosophy, life and love. And the story of Don Juan. Sometime in 1903, after a rather violent sneezing fit brought on by pepper and atmospheric pressure as a result of an approaching thunderstorm, all of these fell out onto Shaw’s dining table, and from these he constructed ‘Man and Superman’, performed in its entirety by the National Theatre, with Ralph Fiennes as Jack Tanner, descendant of Don Juan and author of ‘The Anarchist’s Handbook’, a man caught between his anarchist principles and his inability to avoid the schemings of Indira Varma’s Ann Whitefield.
It’s a funny play, but a complex one, and the humour and complexity often seem to get in each other’s way, snapping for attention like an underfed puppy, each one yapping louder than the other to own the audience’s attention. The staging worked well to calm these metaphysical canines, a rotation set allowing the transition from suburbia to the Sierra Nevada where Tim McMullan shone as the Anarcho-Jewish brigand Mendoza. The set pieces worked well, the direction smooth, the staging sumptuous. And then we got to Act III.
The problem with George Bernard Shaw, as I may have already suggested, is that his beard contained a lot of words, and that fateful sneeze brought on by the impending weather front shook a thesaurus full of them out in front of him, and rather than sweep them tidily away and save them for clearer skies, Shaw seems to have decided to put them all into the play, cramming the majority of them into the dream sequence in Act III and dispensing with such devices as dramatic action in favour of philosophical duels between Don Juan (still Fiennes) and the Devil (McMullan, smouldering) lasting for something approaching eternity.
The dream sequence, or Don Juan in Hell, is often cut entirely, or performed as a separate entity. Here it worked as the dramatic equivalent of watching Picasso at work: it’s very interesting, but paint drying is paint drying, and despite the sympathetic staging and projections dancing with and displaying the metaphors in the air, not a lot happened. For a long time.
Tanner wakes up, having fled the amorous intentions of Ann, surrounded by brigands and conscious of having dreamt something strange. From there the other characters catch up with the action, as does the play itself, and the denouement is played out with elements of farce, confused, snobbish, stereotypically (even for 1903) American Americans and a visibly unravelling Tanner, played to perfection by Fiennes who shines, freed from the restrictions of the screen villain or emotionless Brit.
The supporting cast held up their part well, and Bernard Shaw’s beard, I’m sure, was done justice. Man and Superman is an interesting play, a complex play, and overall, a very long one. As Elvis once said, ‘A little less conversation, a little more action, please'.