Happiness is something we’re all looking for, and whatever that means to you, it can be a lifelong pursuit. Whether it be a certain type of luxury, a happy family or just freedom to be yourself, almost everyone will have a dream or goal to work towards. But what if we’ve got this all wrong and the years or decades spent hoping for more are wasted? According to Shaw’s controversial hero Jack Tanner, while we’re all dreaming our lives away, life – the very excitement of just existing and experiencing the here and now – is passing us by.
Despite being more than a century old, this revival of Man and Superman feels extremely pertinent – tapping into questions that are still troubling us now. Many of these are concerned with society’s expectations of the life we should lead and of the characteristics of men and women. As the play opens Jack Tanner is a celebrity, famed for writing a radical book which has set him politically at odds with acquaintance Roebuck Ramsden. Part of his philosophy is that marriage is pointless, a façade for indignity and something women force on men to preserve the biological need to repopulate. Yet when his good friend dies, Jack is appointed co-guardian of Ann who had manipulated her father into the appointment with her own designs to marry Jack. Learning of this plan Jack runs off to Spain with Ann in pursuit and attempts to retain his freedom.
At around 3.5 hours this is a monster of a show and includes the often excluded third Act concerning Jack’s philosophical dream set in hell. Yet this fascinating production zips along and when the interval arrives at around an hour and 45 minutes, I could easily have stayed there and watched it to the end without a break – crazy but true! Admittedly, at times, it’s not an easy thing to watch and with our twenty-first century eyes some of the attitudes about and of the women will certainly jar. Having a central character whose only wish is to be married and conducts a campaign of lies, deceits and manipulation to get what she wants isn’t going to win over modern female audience members.
Yet, beneath the surface, there are also many aspects of Man and Superman that positively reinforce the role of strong and independent-minded women. First, this play is over a hundred years old so at that time to have a character like Ann appear on stage at all was a radical move – yes she is driven by marriage, but one of her choosing to a man who will be her sparring equal, instead of the weak young man Octavius who follows her about. She controls the action of this play, outsmarting and outwitting all the men and can be seen as the basis of many of the strong female characters that followed her. Second, this is a comedy and much like Oscar Wilde’s characters, this production encourages the audience to view everyone, and particularly Jack as rather ludicrous, thus his views can also be seen in this light. Here is a silly man and the scrapes he gets into with a set of silly people presented entirely for our amusement.
By giving this a modern setting, director Simon Godwin and designer Christopher Oram are asking the audience to think about some of the points Shaw raises and how far we have really come in the last century. Jack may applaud the idea of babies being born outside of marriage or not being born at all, but today how often are women in their 30s asked when they plan to marry and have children – it is a pressure society and the media still exerts on unmarried women who have chosen a path other than having families. Rather than seeming old fashioned, watching this production of Man and Superman showed me that Shaw was actually imagining a society that is still some years away from really existing.
Absolutely central to this production is Ralph Fiennes’s performance as Jack which balances a wonderful comic timing with the world-weary philosophising Tanner indulges in during his long speeches. Fiennes is an actor I would happily watch read the phonebook so his almost permanent appearance on stage for 3.5 hours is joy from start to finish. It is only since the Grand Budapest Hotel that the actor has been lauded for this comedic skill, but this comes as no surprise to anyone who had seen In Bruges or his stage work including God of Carnage a few years ago. Many will only know him from Harry Potter and Bond which Fiennes recently explained has given him the financial freedom to do more theatre and will head to the Old Vic next year for The Master Builder. But his performance here is at its best during the longer speeches where he is able to build momentum and tension to create a climactic moment – and this is a skill you see in his earlier films such as The English Patient and The End of the Affair – where he conveys complex and deeply felt emotion or opinion. Jack may hold some ludicrous views but he is convincing and sympathetic.
Supporting Fiennes is the brilliant Indira Varma as Ann, who is every bit his match and although we see her behave in a way modern women may find uncomfortable, she is also someone to root for – even though you know both she and Jack can’t ultimately have their way. Varma ensures Ann never becomes annoying and it’s fascinating to see her turn arguments and discussions around to suit herself, easily controlling everyone around her. Ann is an interesting collection of contrasts, wanting both so much and so little, and Varma’s verbal duelling with Fiennes will keep you gripped throughout.
There is a fine supporting cast too with Tim McMullen almost stealing the show as the bandit Mendoza that Tanner meets in Spain who by coincidence is in love with the chauffeur’s sister. Nicholas Le Prevost is always a welcome addition to any cast, and here plays Ann’s other disapproving guardian. Christopher Oram’s design is beautiful using digital panels across the back wall to project blurred images of flowers, gardens and organic patterns which look stunning against some of the more traditional sets, and adds emphasis to the way this production cleverly navigates old and new.
Much has been said about the inclusion of the dream sequence set in hell where Tanner in the guise of Don Juan debates the philosophy of life and existence with the devil and companions. Admittedly this is the first time I’ve ever seen Man and Superman so can’t comment on what it would be like without it, but it was fascinating to listen to the debates rage between the characters, and a rare opportunity to sit back and think about what life means. Excluding this from the play would seem to me like cutting out its heart.
Man and Superman is then an absolute triumph for the National Theatre; it is a play that espouses views we may not always agree with but this production offers both plenty to think about as well as much to entertain. It’s never a chore to see Ralph Fiennes on stage and he shines here as Shaw’s radical anti-hero destined to be bumped back to earth. If you’re still searching for happiness, then 3 and half hours in this theatre is an absolute treat and as Jack himself would hope, will make you think about the purpose of life itself.
Man and Superman is at the National Theatre until 17 May with an NT Live broadcast to local cinemas on 14 May at 7pm. Most tickets are sold out, but keep checking the website for returns or book for an NT Live screening. Follow this blog on Twitter: @culturalcap1.