There’s something quite astounding about the National Theatre’s latest star driven production by Simon Godwin, and it’s that at some point in the three and a half hour running time you inevitably realise that you are watching a masterclass in fine acting. With over 57,000 lines in total, Bernard Shaw’s masterpiece is by no means an easy ride for any actor, but to deliver that number while making an audience believe that you are in fact Jack Tanner is something else entirely.
For anyone unfamiliar, Man and Superman is one of the earlier works by Shaw. Part romance, part comedy, part philosophical debate, it concerns the events following the appointment of Jack Tanner (Ralph Fiennes) as joint guardian to the young and scheming Ann Whitefield (Indira Varma). As Jack fights the responsibility of his new appointment, he clashes with the rest of the family including joint guardian Roebuck Ramsden (Nicholas le Provost), both with his less-than-conventional views of the world and in his efforts to doubt affection for Ann.
What ensues is a four act moral, philosophical and political debate as they journey to Spain, get held hostage by a Jewish cosmopolitan President of the League of the Sierra, dream about the implications of ending up in hell, and ultimately finish in a heated exchange where Jack believes he has been tricked into loving Ann only to then agree to marriage.
If it sounds odd, it’s because it is. But in this incredibly fast-paced production it works. Lines are delivered faster than Jack’s racing car, and while there were only a couple of times (mainly during what was effectively a 30-minute monologue by Fiennes during the hell scene) that lost focus, the pace only helped to improve the comedy and the tension between the family members, while ensuring I made my train on time.
But while this really is a combined effort by the whole cast – it would be difficult to pick a weak link if I had to – this is through and through all about Fiennes. The are two kinds of great acting: those performances that are so dramatic they’ll undoubtably make you admire them; and those performances that make you genuinely believe you are watching real people acting out their own lives. Fiennes as Tanner falls firmly into the latter. He is Tanner. He thinks as Tanner.
While I could gush all day about the central performance, it’s not to say that this is a performance without fault. As previously mentioned, at times Shaw’s text is delivered at such speed that it’s sometimes to the detriment of the legibility of it. And I have to say on this occasion I wasn’t a fan of Christopher Oram’s set design. Clean walls made up of coloured (or often white) panels framed the stage on all sides with a number of set pieces brought into place by the revolve or from the fly tower.
The design was somewhat of a dichotomy that ended up at odds with itself. The walls incredibly clinical and abstract, while the set pieces were more realistic. Never more obvious was the mixed tone than during the desert scene; the sandy hill looking unnatural amongst its surroundings. Only when realism was abandoned did the design work effectively, so it’s no surprise that the simplicity of the scene in hell worked much better. But in spite of the design, the transitions between scenes complete with some excellent music by Michael Bruce helped build the tension excellently while giving a much needed concentration break.
Special mention this time around has to go to the backstage team though who had a speedy clean-up following the backdrop coming down on top of a piece of set that wasn’t properly in place. Cue a slightly worse for wear wall and confused audience who, after sitting for three hours already, were unanimously hoping the show would go on.
An all-round excellent production with a perfect central performance from Ralph Fiennes. Managing to balance comedy with philosophy is no mean feat but this does it excellently. Its only letdown is a slight miscalculation of pacing at times and a set design that doesn’t work throughout.
Man and Superman is on in the Olivier Theatre until 17th May. Tickets are sold out but Friday Rush and day seats are available. For more information visit the National Theatre website.
And the seat…
Circle, row C, seat 25. A perfectly good view of the stage for less than the rows in front of it. Would rather go for this than row A which has the front of circle wall in view. No obstruction from the head in front and decent legroom. Only issue is the sound in the Lyttelton can be appalling so up here it wasn’t the best at times and had to strain to hear properly. Still well worth the ticket price.
Main photo by Johan Persson.