Judging by reviews it appears difficult to talk about Man and Superman without first beginning by highlighting all the intimidating facts that surround it. So yes, it is three and a half hours of densely packed text, cut-down from closer to five, written by a formidably – and forbiddingly – intelligent committed socialist who straddled late-Victorian/early Edwardian Britain. And yes, back in 1903, it was described as ‘unstageable’.
With that introduction it may come as a surprise that tickets are also as rare as hen’s teeth (day seats and returns only). One suspects that it hasn’t been produced because the public have been crying out for a revival of a play that was last staged at the National two years before this critic had even been born. It is possible that the presence of an actor who can plausibly claim to be an A-lister of both stage and screen may be the cause of ticket scarcity.
Stage appearances by Ralph Fiennes have been limited over the last 15 years; he was last seen as Prospero back in 2011, in what was unfortunately a rather interminable production by Michael Grandage (a sentence I seemed to have repeated more and more in the intervening years), but reminded everyone of his talents with a blistering snippet of Pravda’s Lambert La Roux during the National Theatre’s 50 Years celebration in 2013.
And what a performance it is. This is no stunt casting. No director would be foolish to let an inexperienced actor loose with Jack Tanner. The part is as difficult as they come. It requires the ability to enable a 21st century audience to find common ground with a figure who spends most of the play declaiming grandly about the machinations of women and who, one suspects, would only be happy marrying himself (and, as is the nature of such plots this is, in a way, exactly what happens).
The other difficulty is the sheer challenge of the language. The play runs to over 57,000 words and most of those are Tanner’s. Actors cannot rely on lovingly crafted Elizabethan verse-speaking to help settle the lines in the head, dialogue is akin to the densely packed social commentary of Dickens. When one hears Tanner it is hard not to detect the hectoring tones of Bernard Shaw in a room full of weary brow-beaten gentleman thoroughly bored with being told about the inequities of the Edwardian world. This is a challenging part, getting the wrong tone will lead to the comedy seeming tin-eared, or the moralising too earnest.
Fiennes is quite magnificent in the role. His performance fizzes with an energy that is vital for driving the momentum of a plot that seeks to extend a seemingly traditional comedy of manners into an epic spanning more than 200 minutes. Fiennes energy feels justified by the character – his vitality in keeping with the slightly pompous air of the revolutionary driven by ideology but supported by money.
The topic that occupies the play is that of ‘women’. It is a topic that, like every other, Tanner has stout opinions of and that he is willing to expound upon at length. It is also without doubt the biggest challenge of bringing the play to a modern audience. There is, on the surface, more than a whiff of the liberal patrician to the words that Shaw places in Tanner’s mouth.
In the opening exchanges his position on Ann Whitefield (Indira Varma), her calculating pursuit of a husband and her manipulation of Octavius Robinson are questionable at best, and not well supported by his accompanying arguments. However we also see him robustly, if through a farcical misperception, defending the pregnancy of the seemingly unmarried Violet Robinson.
Importantly this is a comedy and so we should expect that a man as pompous as Tanner will eventually be cut down to size, and it is a romantic comedy so we should also expect that a man like Tanner will meet his match and come to realise that what he didn’t want was actually exactly what needed all along.
Shaw is even-handed in how he demolishes his character’s positions and it is clear from the text that this is a celebration of women – albeit one written from the turn of the 20th century. It is easy to forget the play is over a hundred years old and that many of the arguments that Shaw outlines would have been genuinely radical and tapped into the fears of society at a time when women were more or less powerless.
The calculations and scheming in the play are things to be celebrated. It may seem that Shaw presents the female sex as one that will do anything to get their own way but, as of 1903, this is not seen as a bad thing. Women could not vote, the vast majority would not be in professional jobs or access more than the most basic levels of education, it was likely that inheritance would pass to male heirs regardless of merit and the unmarried Ann is assumed to require a guardian on the death of her father.
In this context should we not celebrate the headstrong Ann and Violet? Violet could be read as a grasping creation that hides her marriage on the fear of losing access to her husband’s wealth, or she could be celebrated as a woman who senses her husband’s weakness and sees no reason why her child should be raised in penury as a result.
Ann is a magnificently modern created; single-minded, outspoken and more than a match for any of her male peers. She has set her sights on taming the most wilful of beasts even when everyone points her to the loving if colourless Octavius. Ann knows what she wants and understands the nature of the hunt to achieve it. She lies when she feels she needs to, and she can be quite cruel when she has to be.
For Shaw this is not misogyny, it is a celebration of what woman could be. This play is a celebration of the wilful, active woman. The position most derided is that of the romantic. Shaw paints Octavius as a pained suitor doomed to failure. It is not his passivity that is objectionable but the passivity he paints onto Ann. In his hands Ann would be a Virgin Mary figure, placed on a pedestal and worshipped. The romantic is seen to be the archetypal conservative, he idolises the feminine and an element of this perfection is the lack of a dissenting voice.
Shaw is arguing that marriage is a balance of competing voices – and in Tanner and Ann we see a constant competition. There are clear elements of Benedict and Beatrice in their courtship and the play, including a final scene that could as easily be the Messina of Much Ado About Nothing as it is Man and Superman’s Spanish villa.
In Indira Varma we have an Ann more than capable of matching Fiennes’ commanding performance. Varma is another stage and screen veteran who wears her experience lightly. She is as comfortable as Fiennes with the rigour of speaking Shaw’s rather tortured sentences, and there is a magnetism to her interactions with Fiennes. Varma is impressive at balancing the demands of playing coy and hiding an intelligence that is every bit the equal of Tanner’s whilst still bending people to her will.
The undercurrent of sexual tension in her opening scene with Fiennes is testament to the masterly performance from both actors. The audience see precisely the trap being laid and we see – where Tanner is too blinded by self-belief – that Ann is the perfect foil for such a man.
Perhaps the most surprising element of the production – particularly those have given Shaw a wide berth due to his reputation – is just how funny it is. Not quick smirk funny, or wry amusement funny, but belly laugh funny.
Man and Superman is packed with zinging one-liners and his modernity of thought mean that, unlike Wilde, many still deliver the same impact today. In some regards it is remarkably similar to Alan Ayckbourn’s relationship comedies and has parallels with the big ideas of Tom Stoppard (and, watching them close together, confirms any lingering suspicions about the light-weight nature of The Hard Problem).
Godwin places a huge amount of trust in his actors to take the audience with them and restrains his direction to the practicalities, whilst allowing Christopher Oram’s smart set-design to do a lot of the heavy lifting in a play that moves between England, Spain and Hell. The actors repay the favour by putting performances that recognise that comedy is reliant on pace without swallowing the difficult turns of phrase that make Shaw a potentially thankless task.
Shaw may have just failed in making Man and Superman the ‘great play’, the modern interpretation of Don Juan, which it so clearly wants to be. However under Godwin’s direction, and with bravura performances from Fiennes and Varma, this production is likely as a good a version as there is to be seen.
Other people’s thoughts:
Michael Billington in the Guardian
Dominic Cavendish in The Daily Telegraph
Libby Purves at Theatre Cat
Matt Trueman at Variety
Matt Wolf in the New York Times