Man and Superman

Our critics rating: 
Thursday, 26 February, 2015
Review by: 
Mark Shenton

When it comes to the plays of Bernard Shaw, I'm afraid I'm usually at one with Captain Terri Dennis, the camp head of the army's entertainment unit in Peter Nichols's Privates on Parade who declares, "Oh, that Bernadette Shaw! What a chatterbox! Nags away from arsehole to breakfast-time but never sees what's staring her in the face."

And I feared that would be the case even more so with the rarely-staged Man and Superman than ever, since the National had originally announced a running time of some 3hrs 40mins for it. In fact, not only did that time get shaved by around 10 minutes by the opening night, but also it passed by both effortlessly and entertainingly.

That's partly a testament to a completely charismatic turn from Ralph Fiennes, returning to the role of Jack Tanner that he'd previously played in a BBC Radio production nearly twenty years ago. Here's a natural-born stage star who completely owns the stage as he prowls it with urgency and conviction, and lets forth a stream of consciousness that's sometimes hard to keep up with.

He's a man not short of opinions on everything, but mostly about guarding his own single status. Like Pygmalion's Professor Henry Higgins, here's a man who'd rather not get involved in the tangled mess of human relationships. But his resistance is eventually broken down, via a revelatory dreamed trip to Hell and back.

It's not an easy play to always follow, but Simon Godwin's alert and playful production maintains an energy to complement that of its star to ravish both the eye (thanks to Christopher Oram's beautiful clean designs) and ears (in the dancing wit of Bernard Shaw's words).

Shaw's plays have mostly fallen out of theatrical fashion, not least this one (that I saw last done in the West End in 1982). But there's still irresistible life in them, and Godwin is not shy of a challenge, since he also resurrected O'Neill's famously problematic Strange Interlude on this same stage, too.

There are also terrific performances from Indira Varma, who steals his heart, and Tim McMullan as a Spanish bandit who tries to steal other things.


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