Indira Varma and Ralph Fiennes. Production photograph by Alastair Muir.
“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.”
Watching the National Theatre’s wonderful production of Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman reminded me of just why I have loved Bernard Shaw since I first read Caesar and Cleopatra at the age of fifteen. His writing still sings and jumps off the page at you, as modern and edgy as anything being written now. Man and Superman was first staged in 1905 and that is genuinely hard to believe. It is utterly unlike anything else that was being written at the time, original and even strange in some ways, especially when the Don Juan in Hell act is performed as part of it, which happened for the first time in 1915. I hope that nobody ever suggests leaving it out again after seeing this new production. This is a big, bold, confident play- like its author- and it has some penetrating things to say about society, love and marriage that are as relevant today as they ever were. It is sharp, wise and very funny. Yes it is long- maybe too long- but if it is done properly the time flies by. It’s a three course meal laid out on stage rather than the luxury stage canapes that we have become accustomed to snacking on. Shaw knew how to entertain and amuse an audience and get his points home by stealth and he is a master of setting out an argument clearly. For a long time his plays were unfashionable and it is good to see him back where he belongs in recent years- right at the centre of things.
Jack Tanner is a very long part and you watch Ralph Fiennes’ masterful performance in awe at what he is doing. He is in complete control of both the character’s arguments within the text and the character- something that is essential with Shaw and by no means easy to manage. Shaw’s characters always have a viewpoint and that is as important as their reality. I just don’t know how Ralph Fiennes did it- but I daresay being one of the finest stage actors of his generation helped. With a life force like that on stage beside them it was a tough job for the other actors to stand their ground but I’m glad to say they did. Indira Varma’s Anne Whitefield is going to be a good match for Jack- she understands him and will give as good as she gets, and the final scene where she finally achieves what she has always wanted was beautifully played between the two of them. She is a strong, beautiful presence on stage and I am always glad to see her. There was some very funny, stylish work from Tim McMullen as the brigand Mendoza and The Devil which made a perfect wry, laid back contrast to Jack. He had some of the best lines and made the most of them. I was very pleased to see Faye Castelow making the most of a nice part on a big stage having seen her give a storming performance as Ruth Ellis in our local theatre. Violet has a strong character and some lovely moments and she more than held her own. Elliot Barnes-Worrall was a lovely chirpy contrast to everyone else as Straker, just as he should be, and it was good to see Christine Kavanagh giving a very well judged, stylish performance as Mrs Whitefield. The whole play was very well cast.
The director Simon Godwin has done a wonderful job, although I have a feeling that Ralph Fiennes was on fire to do this one and didn’t need much advice. Having said that I’m sure that one of the reasons that everyone else didn’t get lost in Jack Tanner’s slipstream and Shaw’s arguments were able to shine so brightly was thanks to his good sense and advice. The updated setting was very cleverly managed. It had a timeless feel in spite of the updating- nothing grated with the dialogue at all- and the costumes were particularly carefully judged. The design fills the stage of the Lyttelton with a breathtaking simplicity in the Don Juan in Hell scene and never gets in the way. Rightly, Bernard Shaw was a great fan of his own work and I think he would have absolutely loved this. I don’t wonder it is sold out. If they tour it I shall see it again- sometimes a live relay just isn’t enough.
Every life casts a shadow.
We carry with us
the strength that comes from
learning who we are
and hide the wreckage of everything
that we tried to be.
We all have dark places
best kept to ourselves,
things best unseen, unsaid.
We dispense kindness,
spreading our public face,
and make only short, sharp,
fearful forays into reality.
And yet beyond the shadows
our roots still grow out of love
and its light surrounds us.
He was sitting at a corner table near the open kitchen of the tiny cafe, bald headed, middle aged, opinionated, eating his way through a large breakfast. I disliked him on sight. He was looking round at the few other customers, talking to the owners, making his presence felt- one of those people who has an innate ability to know that something is of interest just because he said it. Not particularly pleasant but harmless enough. Then his face changed. He had seen someone outside the window. He raised his voice.
“That’s Jack Charlton just walking past.”
He had to repeat it several times before he could be sure he had everybody’s attention. He knew exactly what he was doing.
“I’m surprised he’s still alive.”
It was Jack Charlton. Jack is a very famous long retired footballer, a Leeds United hero and a former England international who was part of the 1966 world cup winning side. A Yorkshire legend. He has spent a lot of his time in our small town over the years as he likes his fishing and his son has a home here. He is well liked. That’s about as enthusiastic as we get here- it means a lot.
“I’ll tell you something now.”
The man started on a tale about a night in a pub, many years earlier, when Jack had been signing autographs for local kids. He was on the other side of the cafe but I could hear every word- as he meant me to.
“And do you know what he said?”
We didn’t- obviously. He paused to look round the cafe tables, enjoying his momentary importance.
“He said get your dad to buy me a pint.”
Another pause to let the sheer horror of this sink in.
“He said it to every single one. Landlord threw him out. Told him we don’t want your sort in here.”
There was no response. His face creased in dislike as he watched the elderly sportsman disappear out of sight.
I wondered what it must be like to be the kind of person who carried such bitterness around with them for years and felt the need to let it spill out over a group of strangers in a cafe.
I wondered how it must feel to be a great sportsman, just past your eightieth birthday, much loved, memory fading, walking around in the face of criticism from an unseen stranger. A stranger who can claim anything they like about you, unchallenged, because you didn’t hear it and those who did hear it say nothing.
A good humoured session in a pub, when a friendly young footballer had been having a joke with some of his teenage fans had been twisted- so many years later- to suit the needs of someone who had waited a very long time to stick the knife in. I didn’t believe a word of his story but what did that matter? It had been said. It was impossible to prove the man wrong, and he knew it. There was more to his vitriol than he was allowing us to see. I would have liked to ask him which team he had supported back then and I would have liked to tell him how very small he had made himself look. If it had been my cafe he would have been asked to leave.
An unforgiving thick, black font
blares out a message through time.
Men with rosettes,
well wrapped up, safe and smug,
show their faces and smile.
They are thinking of nobody in particular.
People fought and died for this.
A list of humanity
crossed through one by one.
Numbers, names, roads, hearts.
A stumpy pencil tied to a string.
The worn edges
of a battered old black box.
It is time to make your cross.
So long ago, but I still feel it.
The tears on Grannie Shipley’s face
as the great horse chestnut tree
thirty yards from our house,
the one where I collected conkers,
screamed at the bite of the saw.
“Get away with you!”
I slipped out of her sight,
avoiding her distress,
but there was no way to escape the sound
of raw pain and disfigurement
to the body of one who had lived so long.
The final rumble of a mighty death
signaled the end of a great spirit.
I stood at our gate that afternoon
and watched as the dismembered body
was carried away, without flags or oratory,
on the back of a rusty lorry.
Only a few twigs were left behind,
full leaved, new grown,
Still pulsing with their final breaths.
they held the scatterings of a life.
Wreaths strewn in memory,
clinging to what might have been.
I picked one up and held it tight,
knowing that I must not show it to my gran.
Barrie Rutter as Lear and Catherine Kinsella as Cordelia. Production photograph by Nobby Clark.
King Lear is an astonishingly flexible play. It can be a great national tragedy set in a society which is deeply flawed or it can be an intimate family tragedy played out in a small space. It works to enormous effect either way when done well. It is the bleakest of the tragedies and while there is hope at the end you have to look pretty hard to find it. I had seen it played out on a grand stage in the National Theatre’s recent production so I was looking forward to seeing Northern Broadside’s production in our small local theatre. They are always very much at home in Scarborough and there was a full house waiting for them along with me.
It is obviously a very good idea to put Barrie Rutter, as Lear and the director Jonathan Miller in a rehearsal room together. His performance begins by being very familiar to those of us who know his strengths but by the final scene he has found an openness and a vulnerability which is not his natural territory and it was deeply impressive and moving to watch. Catherine Kinsella is also very moving as Cordelia. She is simply honest and good and her obvious worth points up the irrational, capricious nature of Lear’s decision, a terrible misjudgment which sets the plot in motion. You can see what she is thinking even when she is silent and I can give no greater compliment to any actor than that. I was also very impressed by Nicola Sanderson’s Regan. She had a very northern face, bitter and self satisfied, and I am haunted by her expressions as she stood centre stage watching the blinding of Gloucester taking place off stage down one of the voms. It takes a pretty special performance to carry that off and make you believe it is actually happening. Jos Vantyler gives a scene stealer of a performance as Oswald, up front but perfectly controlled, making a real person of someone who could easily be just a cypher. and Andrew Vincent made a fine Kent, full of natural dignity. The whole cast was, quite simply, without a weak link.
You can never have everything in a production of a Shakespearean tragedy and there are always gains and losses however you approach it, that’s what makes it worthwhile coming back again and again. I am not sure, for reasons that I don’t think were anything to do with Finetime Fontayne’s performance, which was stylish and precise, that this production managed to completely show the relationship between Lear and his fool. There has clearly been some very perceptive direction in the production as a whole from Jonathan Miller but I would like to have asked him about that.
I have probably been luckier with Lear than any other Shakespeare play over the years and I have seen some great ones. This was a worthy addition to my list.
As a postscript I need to add that there was a long break in the second half due to a medical emergency in the audience and I really wish that I could have seen the production again before writing.