Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Theatre review: Man and Superman

Simon Godwin seems to be the director the National Theatre immediately thinks of when there's a very long play to be staged at the Lyttelton - a couple of years ago he took on Strange Interlude, which was pretty strange but far from a mere interlude; now it's Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman, a play so hefty its third act is usually omitted entirely. Not here though, as Ralph Fiennes leads a modern-dress production that comes in at over three-and-a-half hours. Fiennes plays Jack Tanner, a radical author notoriously fond of the sound of his own voice, and particularly prone to diatribes against marriage. There's plenty of these when he and Roebuck Ramsden (Nicholas Le Prevost) are unexpectedly made joint guardians of an old friend, the heiress Ann Whitefield (Indira Varma,) and Jack has much to say against his smitten friend Octavius' (Ferdinand Kingsley) hopes to propose to her. In fact it's Jack himself Ann has her eye on, and he's willing to go a long way to avoid that.

Shaw's play is made up almost entirely of philosophical debates, which should be tiresome - and occasionally is. But for the most part two things make Ralph and SuperRalph a surprisingly entertaining evening.

One is that these speeches are couched in an unpredictably bizarre framework, that starts traditionally enough in a lawyer's office as Ann's father's will is read, and the story gets complicated by Octavius' sister Violet (Faye Castelow) secretly marrying Hector (Nick Hendrix - at one point he wear shorts,) and keeping it a secret from his American billionaire father (Corey Johnson.) But soon enough the plot starts to wander all over the place just like Jack does - he and his chauffeur Straker (Elliot Barnes-Worrell) flee to Spain, where they're captured by a politically-diverse group of bandits led by Mendoza (Tim McMullan,) who likes to regale his hostages with terrible love poetry. And then there's the restored third act, a dream sequence in which Jack becomes Don Juan, Mendoza the Devil, and we discover that hell is actually a very popular destination, because heaven is so boring.

The other thing that helps the time pass is that it's frequently very funny - Shaw's wit may be legendary but I've rarely seen much evidence of it in those plays of his I've seen. There's plenty of good one-liners here though, and Godwin's production isn't afraid to complement them with the odd bit of unexpectedly goofy physical comedy. And fortunately, unlike the last time Christopher and I saw him on stage, Voldemort has plenty of pace and charm in his delivery, matched by the rest of the cast.

Christopher Oram's set was glitching a bit in tonight's performance, but that aside it's an understatedly grand backdrop to the rather odd epic taking place on it. There's no getting over the fact that Man and Superman keeps you in your seat for a long time (the interval cuts it pretty much dead-on into equal 100-minute halves) but it rarely feels like it's wasting your time.

Man and Superman by Bernard Shaw is booking in repertory until the 17th of May at the National theatre's Lyttelton (returns and day seats only.)

Running time: 3 hours 35 minutes including interval.

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