George Bernard Shaw was, in his time, a revolutionist thinker. This turn of the century playwright was perhaps first and foremost a reformist thinker. Today, he would probably not be holding on to the same discours. As he puts it in his first of many stage directions in Man and Superman:
“… and an Evolutionist from the publication of the Origin of Species. Consequently he [Roubuck Ramsden] has always classed himself as an advanced thinker and fearlessly outspoken reformer.“
He mocks his own character, Roebuck Ramsden, and every member of the conformist Idle Rich Class who thinks themselves progressive, when they haven’t changed their opinions since half a century ago, when those opinions, were indeed progressive. One could infer from that, that Shaw would not be one to hold onto his beliefs, if he were to live today. But his texts survive, and when they are brought to stage today, they can feel as mere shadows of their former brutality and revolutionism.
Simon Godwin‘s Man and Superman, however, does not fall prey to that. The play that ran at the national theatre in London from February till May, and was broadcast live to cinemas all over Europe on may 14th, is an example of how to do it right. Modern-dress and some minor details changed, such as the speed per mile of the motorcar, the titles of the newspapers, or the sending of a text instead of a note. Then there is Ralph Fiennes as Jack Tanner, who speeds through the long monologues of dense text as if they were common dialogue. The play itself is more than two hundred pages long, and about half of those pages are Tanner’s lines. During the live broadcast, there was one moment when Fiennes had lost his train of thought, made painfully obvious by the unspoken subtitles on the screen. But he recovered soon enough, and in the end he triumphed, delivering one of the most exciting and energetic performances on stage I’ve ever witnessed.
The notoriously lengthy play flies by and entertains from start to finish. The third act, Don Juan in Hell, which is often omitted, is included, and is in fact one of the highlights of the play. It brings to the stage Tim McMullan, first as the lovesick Mendoza, and later as an incarnation of the devil. The actors and director got every joke out of the text possible, and McMullan is the master of delivering them.
As Jack Tanner dreams himself to being his implied ancestor Don Juan, a philosophical debate springs between the main players. The Power of Death versus the Life Force. The play could easily function without act three, this lavish dream sequence. But it is clear that it does not simply halt the actual plot. Without it the ending might seem as Jack Tanner’s defeat, but with it, we understand that Jack was bound to this particular destiny from the start. He’ll be glad to suffer it.
Indira Varma shows she can’t only play a Dornish paramour looking for vengeance (Game of Thrones), but also an English upper class woman, scheming her way to a marriage proposal. Ann Whitfield is in many ways the main character, and Varma plays her to perfection. When the reveal comes that Ann orchestrated the entire thing, it is an expected surprise.
Man and Superman is certainly a play of its time, and while some might be sceptic about it’s relevance today, Godwin and the cast bring forward a story that is more universal than it might seem on first glance. As it deconstructs and questions the institute of marriage, it also gives us a – predated – perspective on the role of women in society. Shaw‘s irony concerning the Idle Rich Class couldn’t be more apparent.
Whether or not you’ll get a valuable life lesson out of Man and Superman, it is undoubtedly going to give you a good time.*
I read the preface and the first act before seeing the play, and read the rest, including the fifty pages long The Revolutionist’s Handbook and Pocket Companion, which Shaw included, afterwards. Perhaps what I’m still most impressed with, besides Fiennes‘ showstopping performance is their ability to find humour in the text where I didn’t see it.
*The irony is of course that the play is no longer performed. Sorry about that. ☺