Note: This is a review of the fourth preview on Friday 20th February 2015. 3 further previews remain. The Press Night takes place on Wednesday 25th February 2015.
Productions of Shaw's plays have been a highlight of recent years at the National and I've consequently been looking forward to this since it was announced, especially as Simon Godwin was returning to direct after his magnificent work on Strange Interlude. It did not disappoint.
This was my first time seeing the play. In advance I read an interview with director Simon Godwin which discussed the question of the omission of the dream sequence in Act 3. I think he is perfectly right that it is in fact an integral part of the work which, to my mind, enriches the debate about relations between the sexes and adds an extra dimension to the resolution of Act 4. Nor is this an evening which felt to me too long – Godwin and his ensemble make 3.5hrs absolutely fly by.
Previous Shaws I've seen usually involve a debate about something, and Man and Superman is no exception. In this case, Shaw's main concern is a broad survey of relations between the sexes, the nature of marriage, appropriate gender roles. However, there's a gloriously wide-ranging character to this work, so that one is also carried into barbed remarks on Anglo-American relations (a professional interest of mine), class, socialism, art. Moreover, while serious questions are under discussion in all these areas the play almost never loses a sense of fun (bouyed up by sparkling one-liners of which my pick was that concerning muffins and inspiration, while my companion's was that regarding a moral gymnasium). Further, while Shaw in my experience gives scope for rival points of view (and thereby scores over many modern “issue” playwrights who struggle badly with this) it usually remains fairly clear where his loyalties lie. Here I found things intriguingly ambigious – especially in terms of what attitude we're supposed to leave the theatre with regarding Tanner's fate. Only one aspect did seem underexplored – that of Tanner as author of The Revolutionist's Handbook.
I suspect I was probably unusual in attending this performance primarily in order to see the play, not because Ralph Fiennes was starring in it as Jack Tanner. As it turns out, Fiennes is worth the price of admission alone (as are one or two other particularly brilliant moments). His delivery of Shaw's dense text is magnificent from start to finish. He doesn't get bogged down by it, but nor does he sacrifice sense to speed. He simply compells attention, whether to intricate argument, or to the one-liner (as already noted Shaw provides plenty of good ones). It's one of those occasions where whenever Fiennes is on stage it's difficult to take your eyes off him – and not, it's worth noting, because he's deliberately trying to hog all the attention.
Beyond Fiennes, the highpoint of the play is unquestionably the bandit scene at the start of Act 3 and the dream sequence that follows. Shaw lets his comedic genius go here from the opening debate between the anarchist (who doesn't know what anarchism is) and the three Social Democrats with three distinct and incompatible views of social democracy to the bandit chief's bad poetry (the finest delivery of such a thing since Baldrick). The central superb performance here is Tim McMullan as the bandit chief Mendoza (also doubling as the Devil with a nice deft line in puncturing Don Juan's reasoning), but those taking the small roles of his acolytes all make the most of them. Elsewhere strong performances also come from Faye Castelow's Violet (especially in Act 4) and Nicholas le Prevost's Roebuck Ramsden (especially when doubling as the Commendatore in Hell – his entrance here is another nice moment). Other performances are, like Act One, still coming into focus. Indira Varma's Ann strengthens considerably in the latter part of the play, in Act One I think she needs to give a little more signal of the manipulative, cunning figure she will clearly cut later in the play – that's to say it isn't yet a whole performance. Ferdinand Kingsley (Octavius Robinson) also hasn't quite yet got the part as an organic whole. The other minor roles are all well taken.
I also think a little more clarity could be achieved with regards to the set. There's a suggestion outside of the interlude in hell of each setting required by the text – bookshelves and a desk in Act One, a large chunk of wall and a motor car in Act Two, a mountainside in Act Three and an elaborate patio in Act Four – and the Lyttelton revolve is used intelligently to keep things moving. However, all these pieces of set are enclosed within off-white panels which become the blank walls of Hell in the dream sequence, and upon which elsewhere lighting which might be vaguely suggestive of the required setting is projected. I wondered afterwards if the intention is to blur the boundaries between the two worlds and to imply a dream aspect to the action on earth – but if so this isn't clearly enough established and the result risks in places giving an artificiality to the earthbound scenes which, with less compelling performances, could be a real problem. Two small notes: the brief use of a mobile phone really doesn't fit in a play most of whose text and setting felt (at least to me) very clearly located in the pre-mobile world and where nothing else in the setting is really complicating that sense; and for backstage staff - you can be seen (at least from that side of the front Stalls) resecuring the panel after Don Juan's departure for Heaven.
Overall, this is another superb Shaw at the National, anchored by Fiennes's mesmerising delivery. The programme includes a list of past Shaw productions at the National which (if complete) is revealing for its comparative thinness. Hytner's National has shown in the recent sequence of productions what a great playwright Shaw is. Hopefully Rufus Norris will build further on this legacy. Meanwhile, a few dates late in the run now have availability - snap your tickets up now or queue for returns. Fiennes, in particular, is unmissable.