Man and Superman: Lyttleton Theatre, The National

Batman Vs. Superman. No, not that one. George Bernard Shaw is not a writer who regularly finds himself in the ‘Marvel Universe’ or the world of DC Comics. At the dawn of the modern, he is a man resigned to the fables of Fabian societies and early twentieth century socialist philosophy. An antique bust of the post-Victorian era, he is a bearded Tennyson, resigned to the plinths of history like the statuary he brings to life in this philosophic comedy, comedic philosophy. Call it what you will, this three and a half hour man mountain of theatre is no undertaking for the Avengers age. No wonder this rendering finds its man in the face of Fiennes rather than a caped crusader looking likely in lycra. The in vogue Grand Budapest Hotel stalwart, transfers from concierge to gentleman, from screen…

To stage. Ralph Fiennes’ latest projects share some similarities. Perhaps a comparison between Willy Wonka Wes Anderson and surely burning in hell, Bernard Shaw is not the most blatant. But both share a conspicuous passion for the verbose. They share the singular ability to remain terrestrial while creating a surreal, subversive and immersive nano world that is fascinatingly disjointed. More detached from reality; an extension of the world than a science fiction overdose of laser eyes and trekking stars. They are uniquely and instantly recognisable as purveyors of personality in a world so often homogenised and burdensome. Their creative works are free from the chilling bonds of genre and compelling in their collage of influences without falling to pathetic pastiche. They balance these conflicting interests. Finding glue, an adhesive for cohesion in the form of Ralph Fiennes.

It is hard to see Bond’s new M as Superman. Fortunately, he is a mere vehicle for the propagation of Shaw’s theories on finding the ideal human: a Superman, philosopher, athlete, whatever you like, to further the race’s progress. An unobtainable allusion that piggy backed on the notions of social Darwinism. A precursor to the kind of ethnic cleansing that would dominate the century. Still, as unpopular as some of these ideas might be now, there are no brakes on a frequently funny, always entertaining modern interpretation of Shaw’s play. That is the ability of Shaw, finding comedy in the philosophy and philosophy in the comedy. He satiates both the brain and the belly. Adding a guffaw to go with the headache. Too wordy for some, not funny enough for others, his plays have impact, leaving a lasting impression and a genuine message for the masses.

So, quite some challenge for Director Simon Godwin. The issue with Shaw’s largesse of language, is, well, it is rather large. The play would take a good, solid four hours. Act III, in which we meet Fiennes’ character Tanner’s alter ego, Don Juan in hell has been cut completely in the past. Much to the detriment of the play’s overall value. Godwin is the first for one hundred years to approach the full feature. Hell is where the heart is for Shaw. Act III delivers a consistently flawless display of rhetoric from his good self in the form of Don Juan (Fiennes). However, it gives Godwin’s directorial underling, set designer Christopher Oram, the opportunity to cultivate a world of endless directional possibility. Angels descend down a 1930s art deco looking lift shaft, Tim McMullan’s Devil, reclines his way out of the floorboards, complete with dry ice drinks from the mini bar. It is perhaps the least scary apparition ever, but this is a devil of deceit not a satanic demon. McMullan is the Russell Brand of hell, all bespoke facial hair, greasy locks and pointed boots. He wants you to merely have a good time. Best avoid the dull drudgery of heaven.

The set is perhaps the most divine feature of the play. For all the words that draw the ear, it is the visual aesthetic that draws the eye and the memory. Sumptuous and dazzling, Godwin seems to set the play more generally in 1930s radiance with more modern splashes of detail. Tanner gets a text message, the clothing is ubiquitously upper class, the chino wearing echelon, the parlourmaid, probably Polish. ’Enry Straker, the chauffeur, is a mixture of the two aeons, looking pure Shoreditch meets Kevin Rowland. In short, living up to the actor’s name…Elliot Barnes-Worrell. The highlight is the end of Act II as Fiennes’ Tanner drives his old school white Austin Healey off stage and almost straight into the rampart of the oncoming stage set. It is the tightest squeeze in stage automobilia and the actor does well not to pile into the pillar and create genuine car crash theatre. That is before we even have the chance to address the exotic relocation of the play in the grand, Granada plains of the Sierra Nevada.

Tanner makes a road trip to escape the dangers of a possible marriage to the drowsily tiresome Anne (Indira Varma), all porto-feminist spark and mouth, but none of the character to render any real depth. Tanner and Anne are supposed to be reminiscent of the great tête-à-têtes of stage past. But Benedict and Beatrice, this sadly is not. In Shaw’s world the femme fatale is the standard. And bog standard is the character. For the highest standard look no further than McMullen’s Mendoza. A Spanish brigand who purrs with languid lasciviousness of a lost lust, crying ‘Louisa, Louisa’ to the Sierra’s fading lights. A Savoy waiter turned sociopath socialist, his kidnapping of Tanner, which triggers the creative apogee of the hell-dream sequence, is the play’s highlight. Greasy and tanned, Mendoza is no Tanner. Yet the two strike up a strangely fraternal bond that enraptures. Fiennes has been developing his comedic catalogue and this represents a climax. The Schindler’s List man has had some fun since, here bounding about the mountain tops with a Jewish ex-pat.

The world of Shaw is singular. Godwin’s Man and Superman is not. The quality is threefold: the directing, acting and stage set. All marry for a memorable version. Just be careful not to marry, eh Jack…

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