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The Theatreguide.London Review

Man And Superman
Lyttelton Theatre  Spring 2015

Man And Superman is Shaw at his wittiest, his most outrageous, his most political and his most philosophical. 

That's a lot to squeeze into one play, and I must start by warning that this very entertaining evening is also very, very, very talky. The talk is all good, but there's a lot of it. Indeed, the running joke of the play is that its central character won't shut up. 

Jack Tanner is an upper class self-styled revolutionary who takes as much pleasure in being shocking just for the sake of it as in being informative or argumentative in the service of the things he believes. 

His philosophy (and Shaw's, at least at that moment) is briefly this: The purpose of life is to attain perfection, for the species if not the individual. Men instinctively work toward it through philosophy and political science, figuring out what needs doing and how best to do it. Women work genetically, by choosing the best possible father for their children. 

When Tanner isn't busy explaining this or just shocking the easily-shockable, he is particularly outraged at attractive young Ann Whitefield and the fact that he seems to be the only one who realises that she always gets what she wants by convincing others she's just doing what they want. 

What Tanner doesn't realise, of course, is that Ann wants him. When he does, he runs like hell, and therein lies the play's plot.

It's not much of a plot – no points for guessing how it turns out – and even Shaw keeps forgetting it before wrapping it up rather perfunctorily. But it's enough to hang all the talk on. 

The talk itself is good, and funny, and even dramatic. Mistakenly thinking a woman of their circle is an unwed mother, Jack praises her effusively for being so free from society's shackles, only to find her as outraged as the others are shocked and himself exposed as too eager to find fellow revolutionaries. 

An encounter with a highwayman leads to this exchange – 'I am a brigand. I rob from the rich.' - 'I am a gentleman. I rob from the poor' – and while we laugh at the wit we sense a hint of the rehearsed ad lib in Jack's line. 

For those who know the play, this production includes the Don Juan In Hell dream sequence, often omitted and sometimes even done as a separate short play on its own. It gives Shaw the chance to say everything he wants without having to pay even lip service to plot or drama. Director Simon Godwin has edited it down a bit, but it is the section that you're most likely to find yourself tuning out of (to no great loss). 

I don't think I've ever realised before how long a role Jack Tanner is (surely longer than Hamlet), as the man is onstage almost continuously and rarely silently. Ralph Fiennes runs an extraordinary marathon, never losing our interest, the clarity of what he's saying or the jokes. 

You do sense him from time to time approaching a big speech as if it were a physical obstacle, bracing his feet and leaning forward to plough his way through it, but through it he goes, bringing us with him. 

Indira Varma takes a little too long in showing us the iron behind Ann's sweet-young-thing facade, and the play would be more fun if we could watch the battle between them developing earlier. 

The ever-reliable Nicholas Le Prevost is droll as the most easily shocked of Jack's acquaintances and Tim McMullan as the love-struck brigand, while Faye Castelow steals one scene by showing that Ann is not the only woman around with more determination and good sense than most of the men. 

Director Simon Godwin and designer Christopher Oram have moved the play up to something like the present at the cost of just a few bits of rewriting, proving that Shaw is just as relevant and things have not changed much in a century.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Man And Superman - National Theatre 2015 

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