Man & Superman
by Bernard Shaw
Directed by Simon Godwin
Designed by Christopher Oram
Lyttelton Theatre at The National Theatre
Saturday 21st February 2014, 19.30
Man & Superman immediately takes me back to the Sixth Form library at school. In the Arts Sixth, we spent many hours reading up on sexually transmitted diseases and contraception in the Encyclopedia Brittanica during library periods (Shaw would have approved) and our favoured table was in the literature area. There was a hardback edition of Man & Superman, and some cheerful vandal had drawn two balls below “man” and three balls below “superman.” Nearby was the Charles Dickens novel with altered title that I shall ever think of as A Tale of Two Tities. No library books have been defaced in the writing of this review.
Shaw was not succinct. The fattest volume in the Penguin Plays series is Man & Superman. The “Epistle Dedicatory” runs to 37 pages, the play itself runs to 171 tight-packed pages, and the last 51 pages are “The Revolutionist’s Handbook” by “John Tanner” running to fifty more pages. This handbook contains the original of “He who can does. He who can’t teaches.” The quote was long ago improved by the addition of “and he who can’t teach, teaches teachers.” Act 3 Scene 2, a long diversion also known as Don Juan in Hell, is normally cut. Act III has been performed as a separate two hour play, for the whole play, uncut, would run to five hours.
Shaw tells us what the actors are thinking in stage instructions. He gives us more back story and scene setting than any other writer. In his Epistle Dedicatory he reminds us that he “began a new epoch in the criticism of the theatre and the opera house by making it the pretext for a propaganda of our views of life.” Theatre criticism was also how he made his living. He then points out that he has “become older in the last fifteen years.” As you do. He was of course, eccentric, but for his dedicated work and gifts to the Society of Authors, I would forgive him almost anything.
One stage direction runs to two complete pages of 9 point italic text. We are told that Hector Malone, an Eastern American, finds that that:
“English behaviour shews (sic) a wanton respect for womanhood; English pronunciation to fail very vulgarly in tackling such words as world, girl, bird etc.” among much else.
There was a reason behind this obsession with detail. It was performed at the (Royal) Court Theatre initially, then famed for its detailed attention to every character in a play, in contrast to the West End “Player Manager” star performer style where most of the cast were considered to be there merely to feed lines to the leads.
The scene setting instructions for the brigands sequence (Act 3 Scene 1) cover four pages. We can see:
“rolling slopes of brown with olive trees instead of apple trees in the cultivated patches and occasional prickly pears instead of gorse and bracken in the wild … no wild nature here: rather a moist aristocratic mountain landscape made by a fastidious artist creator … no vulgar profusion of vegetation; even a touch or aridity …”
Or as any other writer would put it: EXTERIOR: DAY SPAIN
(Actually, in this production the rocky mountainside with caves that was rolled on for the brigands scene was spectacularly good.)
Though it was published as a book in 1903, it was first performed in 1905, and subtitled “A Comedy & A Philosophy. 1901-1903.” They skipped Act III from the outset, first performing it separately in 1907. Shaw directed the original production himself, with John Tanner wearing a red wig and beard so as to look like Shaw.
There’s a last quote from Shaw on his “Don Juan play”:
“If you don’t like my preaching, you must lump it. I really can’t help it.”
Ann (Indira Vharma) and John Tanner (Ralph Fiennes)
Ralph Fiennes did a BBC radio version twenty years ago with Nicholas le Prevost (who was Octavius 20 years ago, but Roebuck now). Fiennes and director Godwin decided to reinstate that Act III but with cuts there and elsewhere to bring it down from 5 hours to a still marathon 3.5 hours including interval. The decision was justified, as the Don Juan in Hell sequence was extremely strong in this version – the true centrepiece.
The other major decision was modern dress. While we happily put Shakespeare and the Jacobeans in any era or costume we feel like, the default tendency for anything post-Wilde is to stick to the era the play was originally written in. Because we have had photography, then film, we know exactly what the 1890s or1920s or 1940s or 1960s looked like, so we feel a need for fidelity to the era. The choice of setting this nowadays was completely vindicated. It worked.
OK, the time frame gets bent a bit, so the beautiful cream XK series Jaguar sports car that actually gets driven off in scene 2 is 1950s, but there are still lovingly preserved examples now. We are very firmly placed in here and now right at the outset with the addition of a recorded Desert Island Discs, which Roebuck is listening to on a DAB radio. Tanner is the castaway, and is choosing Don Giovanni, of course. Later, instead of a letter, a text is received. On the downside, Shaw’s radical views on women would have been startling in 1905, and accentuated in their novelty by Edwardian costume. In modern costume it just seems natural, so maybe that’s an upside not a downside!.
We had seen some of this cast before and recently, though Ralph Fiennes only on film. Indira Varma (Ann) was in Titus Andronicus, The Hot House and Hysteria. Faye Castelow (Violet) was Hermia in the brilliant Headlong version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, plus we saw her three times last year at the RSC in The Roaring Girl, The White Devil and The Witch of Edmonton. Tim McMullan as Mendoza and The Devil was really outstanding.
So the play.You can’t “friend” all the theatres, and with the RSC, the Globe and Bath, enough time is already taken, so we have no priority members booking on the National Theatre. Feverish efforts refreshing the computer at the start of public booking finally got us the two extreme side seats in the second to back row of the circle. A few minutes later it was sold out. Ralph Fiennes is a mighty draw and deservedly so. The Lyttelton Theatre feels huge and very wide for a standard proscenium arch hall. Excellent rake, seating and sightlines are a given at the National, but even so it is a big, big theatre and we were a long way back. The distance does not lend itself to drawing room comedy, as in act one. You’re seeing too much top of head. The set will win prizes, with a frame of light projection panels around the outside with major use of projected light, and the act specific set as an island in the middle on the rotating stage. As with A Taste of Honey last year, the stage dwarfs the central acting area. That was no problem in Acts 2, 3 and 4, but in act one, Mr Roebuck’s study, the size of the stage clashed with the style. And at our extreme distance, this was accentuated. So full marks to the entire cast for projection and clarity.
Act One: Roebuck and Octavius
Shaw was praised at the time for writing Acts 1, 2 and 4 as a conventional well-made play with unconventional themes, and it does function that way, but one of the results of this large space is that to me, Act 3 with the brigands on the mountain in scene one, and Don Juan in Hell in scene two, shone out as the best part of the play by a mile. i.e. the bits usually cut. Interestingly, the interval comes AFTER the first line of Don Juan in Act 3 Scene 2 – a brilliant choice.
So Act 1 was feeling a little dull and removed to us. Act 2 saw the stage revolve to reveal an outside wall and that dream machine of a real Jaguar XK sports car, truly one of the most perfect car shapes ever conceived. A real car, the third in eighteen months, looks good, and the arrival of the chauffeur, Straker brought an added comic dimension. The “cockney” accent described by Shaw becomes the Multi-ethnic metro estuary accent of 2015. Good call. The creaking into 2015 came a touch here as his job was described as “engineer” as it might be in getting a 1905 car to the Sierra Nevada of Spain. The line is that they have travelled from Hyde Park Corner to Richmond at breakneck speed, getting there in twenty-one minutes. That’s much faster than we’ll do it on the way home from the National. It took an hour. Act two is by far the shortest act in the play. By the end of act two, I was still thinking good lines, great acting, but Shaw was an old windbag, and everybody had far too much to say on everything – he was self-aware here; in Act 3, the devil tells Tanner much the same, and Tanner closely represents Shaw. Shaw employs “wise and clever epigrams” in the way that Wilde does, but wraps them up far more than Wilde ever did so it inevitably comes across as wordy.`
Mendoza & John Tanner: The brigands scene
Act 3 scene 1, the brigands’ hideout in the mountains galvanized the play into life. Tim McMullan’s portrayal of Mendoza was so good that it propelled that lift in tempo and strength, but the set was superb. He was commanding and extremely funny, not least when proclaiming his love poetry while everyone else fell asleep. Brigands stopping travellers in a desert area and holding them to ransom could be extremely tasteless in 2015, but here the play really felt it was back in an older time period here with Tanner and Straker looking like adventurers in a Biggles story. Very carefully done. The lines are good, and Mendoza’s reaction when a gun got fired behind him is hilarious. That scene ends with them all going to sleep around the camp fire, and then Tanner goes into the dream and wakes as Don Juan Tenario (John Tanner in Spanish) in hell, surrounded initially by only those white projection panels. The interval!
Don Juan in Hell: The Devil, Doña Ana, Don Juan, The Father
The hell scene used projection of changing lights and colours throughout. At one point as the audience is addressed the house lights came on so slowly as to be imperceptible, then you realize we’re fully lit. Abstract patterns, lights, colours, fire, blood, atomic clouds all get projected with subtle changes. These are the four main characters. John Tanner has changed into18th century dress as Don Juan, Anne is Doña Ana, Roebuck is her dad, dressed in white satin with angel wings (rather than Shaw’s “living statue”). Mendoza is the handsome, languid devil. Theatrical devices see the angelic father lowered from heaven in a lift (complete with lift door sound) and the devil with ornate table and tea trolley for drinks appearing through the floor on a raising trap door. Doña Ana has died aged 77, but Don Juan advises her to choose to be 27 in hell, and the lights flash off and on and she is instantly transformed from dusty grey to white lace (I worked out how they did it). Though this scene has Shaw’s central pontificating, the cast can carry it off, and it’s Fiennes tour de force, ably fed lines by three amazing actors. Brilliant in spite of the sheer amount of words. Good Hamlet references too. I’m delighted this was in.
The speech by the devil is also central:
“And I tell you that in the arts of life man (small m) invents nothing; but in the arts of death he outdoes Nature herself … when he goes out to slay, he carries a marvel of mechanism that lets loose at the touch of his finger all the hidden molecular energies, and leaves the javelin, the arrow, the blowpipe of his father far behind.”
That was written in 1903. The projection on the back screens was a subtle, abstract mushroom cloud. Phew! He felt it then. The First World War was not far away. In looking that up, I noted this is a three page close-typed speech, and the cuts had been throughout and fine, not great chunks.
Bedtime for the Brigands: Straker left, standing. Mendoza speaking
The hell scene folds back into the brigand’s hide out and the arrival of the police … five police officers, five brigands … it requires a big cast for a short scene. Act 4 is a terraced garden in Spain, covered with bougainvillea. We’re back into drawing room romantic comedy and its resolution, but the diversion has sparked life into all the characters. The two other women, Violet, who has secretly married the American, Hector, and Ana’s mother become central to the plot. The arrival of Hector’s billionaire father precipitates the revelations. Faye Castelow’s feisty Violet reminded us of her wonderful Hermia of a few years ago, and the play’s construction shows her pragmatic, commanding attitude to her father-in-law, which sets us up for Anne’s more devious approach and into informing Tanner that he is to marry her.
Ana (Act 4)
Shaw’s themes are religion and feminism, and were radical to shocking for the time. His thesis that women are the primary gender and choose the man to marry, not vice versa was coming of age in Bloomsbury in 1905. One could add, tell that to the Taliban. Or women in poverty in his own era. But nevertheless, the play is full of clever quotable bits. It’s interesting how Shaw talks of Man with a capital M in referring to violence, but to “Nature herself.”
It is a brave man who sets himself up as a proponent and philosopher of feminism, and the programme essay by Viv Gardener notes the reactions to Shaw’s brand of feminism from women over the years. She notes that even in his own day, the self-appointed trio of male feminists, Shaw, H.G. Wells and Arnold Bennett, were cited as “a danger to the women’s cause.”
Overall, first class staging of an important play with an impeccable cast. The designer, Christopher Oram, did the whole of the Michael Grandage Season in 2013, all five plays reviewed on this blog. You can’t find a better stage designer.
I still thought acts one and two somewhat stodgy, not in the slightest because of the production, but intrinsically so.
I don’t usually do this, but we saw it a full week before the newspapers published reviews, and I got so bound up in reading them a week after this was posted, and they bounce between two and four stars.
I thoroughly enjoyed Christopher Hart’s Sunday Times review, though he only gave it two stars. He praises the actors highly but goes for Shaw and the play, not the first writer to say “George Bernard Bore” either. A quote:
The words “chauvinist” and “sexist” don’t quite cover it. For Shaw a long-standing vegetarian and sexual puritan, who never even touched his own wife, women meant sex, marriage, babies, sloppy biology. Men were meant for higher things” philosophy. the ideal, the Nietzschean Ubermensch … the underlying philosophy of the play is … at a level of idiocy only a bona-fide wooly-wearing teetotal Fabian progressive left-wing beard nitwit could aspire to.
Susannah Clap in the Observer gave it four stars and says:
There is a strong case (not least the length of the evening) for performing the hell sequence separately from the main drama. Godwin’s production makes the best possible case for including it.
Michael Billington agrees on four stars in The Guardian, and says:
Even I, as an ardent Shavian, would concede there are moments when you wish the old boy would get a move on. But his wit, often funnier than that of Wilde, endures.
Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail goes for two stars too, and says:
When Tanner starts talking about eternity, we don’t half sympathise. On and on the scene goes … Well done to the National for having a bash at this Edwardian classic. It is the duty of subsidised theatre occasionally to bore us rigid. But will anyone really enjoy or understand Man And Superman?
Dominic Cavendish in The Telegraph takes us back to four stars:
I thought I’d be exhausted after such a marathon, which runs to over three and a half hours in Simon Godwin’s production, but the work’s intellectual energy and comic zest is infectious. Even if one might – and some are bound to – take issue with its generalisations about women and paradoxical cry for male emancipation, it’s fascinating to see how far, or little, we’ve travelled in 100 years.
Paul Taylor in The Independent gives another four stars.