“Man and Superman” at the National Theatre

Weighing in at three-and-a-half hours, Simon Godwin’s mammoth production of George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman is a thrilling achievement. Godwin’s deft direction means not a minute is wasted. He draws out the play’s humour and his unfailing grasp on Shaw’s philosophy and originality makes you think he truly is the Superman of this production.

Or maybe the hero is Ralph Fiennes? He brings remarkable intelligence, technical ability and stamina to the role of John Tanner, making much ado about matrimony. Just as good, Indira Varma gives a mercurial performance as the heroine, Ann Whitefield, who aims to marry confirmed bachelor Tanner. Varma has to deal with Shaw’s turn-of-the-century gender politics (I daren’t use the F word) and ideas about a ‘life force’, which she does with a fresh, mischievous feel. Likewise, Faye Castelow is excellent as the equally powerful Violet, ensuring the play’s subplot remains integral. Nicholas Le Prevost is sheer class as Roebuck Ramsden, the conventional foil to Tanner’s revolutionary ideas. Finally, Tim McMullan gives the performance of his career as a brigand who kidnaps Tanner, then as the devil in a dream sequence, getting wails of laughter from the audience.

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Tim McMullan and Indira Varma

While the production is superb, including go–to video designer Luke Halls’ work, which is refreshingly understated, it is, quite rightly, Shaw and his play that claim your attention. Man And Superman makes you realise why Shaw gets his own adjective. It’s not just the laughs, and there are plenty of them, that are distinctly Shavian. The radical ideas, which still push boundaries, are bold and challenging. Describing your heroine as Lady Methuselah is brave, no matter how tongue-in-cheek. Although it premiered at the Royal Court in 1905, when it comes to form, the play is strikingly modern. Act three’s strange interlude, where Tanner is recast as Don Juan, has characters revelling in the scene’s oddity, highlighting how “extremely abstract and metaphysical” the play is. In short, Shaw’s wit, style and originality surely make him the Superman of the piece.

Until 17 May 2015

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Johan Persson

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