“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.