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April 4 2015

Philosophy, comedy and social satire drip effortlessly from GB Shaw’s pen as he explores two unconventional souls, where one seeks salvation, the other just fun…

WITTY, cutting, and smart, George Bernard Shaw’s “Man and Superman”, currently playing at the National, is almost everything you want in a play.

Ralph Fiennes is outstanding as the central character – John Tanner/Don Juan, and is well supported by a strong cast, which includes the luminous Indira Varma, playing a character – Ann Whitefield/ Ana – probably half her real age and looking quite splendid doing so.

Three-quarters of this play is absorbing and a fine example of playwriting from a different age. It revels in sharp dialogue, delicious wit and somewhat manipulative and vain central characters.

As a play that hit the boards more than a 100 years ago – 1905, was its first outing at the Court Theatre in London – it’s aged well but for one section.

Set in contemporary times, a father has died and in his will he has entrusted his two friends – Tanner (Fiennes) and Roebuck Ramsden (Nicholas Le Provost) to look after his daughter’s (Anna – Varma) welfare.

Ramsden is married, mature, sensible and appears utterly dependable, whereas Tanner is most probably a ‘rake’ in the traditional sense, and does not believe in anything but pleasure or anarchy or possibly both at the same time; has leftish leanings that are quite possibly revolutionary (such was the fashion at the time of many bright, young and unconventional men and women).

He is obviously the anti-hero and a man not to be trusted and in Shaw’s eyes, surely the ‘Superman’. While it echoes the Nietzschean ‘Superman’ or ‘Ubermensch’, it really has very little to do with that – except perhaps some notion that the man (and woman) of letters and the arts is not restricted to conventional morality.

Tanner does not care for marriage or much social convention and is a man of passions and causes. That Shaw gives him all the best lines only suggests he rather saw himself in a similar mould.

Tanner is horrified that he has been handed such responsibility, so too is Ramsden that such a shallow and mercurial man as Tanner should be given such a task.

As for Ann, she rather revels in both men’s discomfort.

On the surface, she seems like many of her age and disposition. With physical beauty, and a natural charm, and a willing intellect, she attracts men easily and already has a suitor in the innocent and rather unexciting young poet, Octavius Robinson (Ferdinand Kinglsey) and her response to Tanner being involved in her care is one of unbridled glee.

For she enjoys the cut and thrust of her own coquetry – especially when her ‘victim’ is so resistant. The perceived age gap (Tanner is considerably older) is for others and the ‘Nietzschean herd’ to worry about.

The Devil (Tim McMullan) with Ana (Indira Varma) in Hell

There is an engaging and entertaining of dance of wit, slights and back handed compliments between Tanner and Ann as they battle it out.

All this is great and highly amusing and Shaw shows utterly why he remains one of our most endearing playwrights.

But for a rather, long (the actual play is more than three hours – be warned), turgid and rather dated exchange in hell (as a dream of Tanner’s) as Don Juan and his one-time amour Ana, this would be a really wonderful theatrical experience.

Too much of this dialogue in the hell scene is centred in early 20th century western European morality, when religion and the idea of hell and heaven were more keenly fixed in the popular imagination than it is today. Those arguments simply do not have the same force.

It is a wonderful production on the whole and if like this author, your experience of Shaw in the theatre is not so extensive, take yourself along, if you can obtain a ticket, and you’re not likely to be disappointed – but for that long dream sequence which drags. Watch out too for Tim McMullan’s Mendoza/The Devil, played with an appropriately louche flourish.

Man and Superman’ by George Bernard Shaw, runs until May 17, Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London, SE1 9PX.
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Written by Asian Culture Vulture