Ralph Fiennes (Don Juan) & Indira Varma (Ana). Photo: Johan Persson
Reviewed by James Karas
Only the bravest and best-funded theatre company would risk producing Bernard Shaw Man and Superman in its uncut version. Including the play-within-the play, Don Juan In Hell, you need a healthy three and a half hours on stage (more if you do at a less than brisk pace), not mention a stellar cast that can deliver Shaw’s arguments intelligently.
England’s National Theatre is decidedly one of those companies and its production of Man and Superman with Ralph Fiennes and a superb cast directed by Simon Godwin succeeds triumphantly.
Man and Superman is a brilliant play but its verbosity can get to even the most dedicated Shavian if the play is done by a merely competent cast without an outstanding director.
Shaw takes on English society to task with lengthy forays into morality, relations of the sexes, marriage and his overriding philosophy of the Life Force. All of it can be interesting, thought-provoking, entertaining and quite funny. But it can also feel like an endless discussion.
This production brings out all the virtues of the play and evades all its vices. The main ingredient is the cast. Ralph Fiennes as John Tanner and Don Juan in the scene in hell is a flamboyant actor who delivers his lines with flair, conviction and humour. He is a delight to watch and hear as he emits his astounding number of lines with such relish that you forget the length of the play.
Colin Haigh (Anarchist), Naomi Cranston (Sulky Social Democrat), Tim McMullan (Mendoza), Arthur Wilson (The Rowdy Social Democrat), Nicholas Bishop (The Frenchman). Photo: Johan Persson
He has good company. Indira Varma, as Ann Whitefield in the play and as Ana in Hell is a perfect antagonist and secret plotter for Fiennes’s Tanner. She is a self-assured, very intelligent, and conniving young woman who knows what she wants and how to get it. She can manipulate people as if she were moving rooks on a chessboard and induce her best-armed antagonist into matrimony. A marvelous performance.
No production of Man and Superman can succeed without a chief bandit who also doubles as the Devil in Hell. Tim McMullen delights in the role of Mendoza in the mountains and Mendoza the businessman and the Devil. He and Fiennes have carriage of the scene in hell with Ana playing a relatively minor role and Roebuck Ramsden (Nicholas Le Prevost) providing contrast as a man condemned to heaven. McMullen’s performance is excellent in hell and on earth.
The sniveling Octavius Robinson is played splendidly by Ferdinand Kingsley and there are fine performances by Elliot Barnes-Worrell as Straker, Faye Castelow as Violet, Nick Hendrix as Hector Malone and Corey Johnson as Malone.
Godwin establishes a brisk pace and maintains it to the end. But this is not a race to blurt out the lines and get it over with. He gets outstanding performances from the cast and one never feels that he is rushing through the script.
Designer Christopher Oran opts for translucent walls lit from behind which look austere and metallic. The first scene has bookshelves and there is a mound for the scene in the Sierra Nevadas. There is bright red lighting to indicate the fires of hell but the scene is mostly lit by white lighting. The set left me indifferent but the production as a whole can only be described as a great night at the theatre. ___________
Man and Superman by Bernard Shaw opened on February 25, 2015 and continues at the Lyttleton Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London, England. http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/