Man and Superman review – Ralph Fiennes towers as Shaw’s Don Juan

Lyttelton, London
Simon Godwin’s whirling revival of Shaw’s loquacious 1903 play proves fashion wrong in emphatic style

Much is said about the responsibility of the National Theatre to find new writers. Quite right too. But the theatre has another obligation. To look at the idea of what is fashionable. And to prove fashion wrong.

Simon Godwin does this triumphantly in his whirling, modern-dress production of Man and Superman. He has a prime subject in Bernard Shaw. Who could be less a la mode? “Too many words” is the complaint routinely made about the dramatist in this age of images. True, his 1903 play, “a comedy and a philosophy”, is torrentially loquacious. A scathing riff on the Don Juan story, Man and Superman is fuelled by rhetoric, banter and inquisition. Yet it guys its own garrulousness: throughout, Shaw plants jokes about his own verbosity. Nor is the action mired in verbiage. A lot happens. A drawing-room comedy and Ibsenite social realism are transplanted to the Sierra Nevada. There are bandits. There is dream life. There is hell. There is, above all, the change of minds and hearts.

Scenes may be set up as debates but there is rarely a clear victor. Paradox and scepticism are the governing principles. Here is a Don Juan who is not in pursuit but pursued, and a chauffeur who is in command of his master. Here is a hero who believes that “an Englishman thinks he is moral when he is merely uncomfortable”.

Ralph Fiennes is towering as that hero. Trying to tell the truth, unbowed by convention, accusing all of hypocrisy, he ends up contradicting himself by his actions. He marvellously suggests both absolute confidence and potential unease. He rolls across the stage, slightly bent and swaying, apparently propelled by the fountain of his own words. He is something like Shaw and something like DH Lawrence. He is a man possessed, and yet each word is perfectly registered.

Elliot Barnes-Worrell (Straker), Ralph Fiennes (Jack Tanner), Tim McMullan (Mendoza), Colin Haigh (The Anarchist) and Nicholas Bishop (The Frenchman) in Man and Superman.
‘There are brigands’… Elliot Barnes-Worrell, Ralph Fiennes, Tim McMullan, Colin Haigh and Nicholas Bishop in Man and Superman. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Indira Varma needs her creamy coolness to sustain her adversarial role as heroine. The real Shaw flaw is not loquaciousness but his inability to see women as other than practically superior. Nicholas Le Prevost, sometimes too expostulating in his main role, is very fine in his hellish incarnation – and looks terrific with wings.

Tim McMullan is both a knockout brigand – snapping eyes and tongue – and a wonderfully languorous devil, serving cocktails that belch smoke.

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. He cleverly breaks for the interval at the point where dream has begun. He neatly cuts so that the serpentine argument focuses on the Tom Stoppardian question of consciousness. He makes what could seem a high-flown episode look like the unexplored heart of the play.

Praise be to theatrical panache. To Christopher Oram, who uses his great skill as a designer to melt one vision into another. Who supplies a great car – and a lift that zooms from heaven to hell. And to Bernard Shaw, who wrote the words that can take audiences to both places.


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Ralph Fiennes and Simon Godwin: our satanic take on Shaw’s Superman
Most productions cut a whole act from Man and Superman. But Ralph Fiennes and director Simon Godwin plan to unleash its full Nietzschean power

Mark Lawson

05, Feb, 2015 @7:30 AM

Article image
Man and Superman review – Ralph Fiennes masters Shaw’s contrary male
Simon Godwin’s modern-dress revival sprinkles fun on the social debate as it reduces a very masculine hero to helplessness in the face of feminine seduction

Michael Billington

26, Feb, 2015 @10:04 AM

Article image
The Master Builder review – knotty intensity from Ralph Fiennes
Fiennes gives lustre to Ibsen’s tale of an ageing architect battling irrelevance

Susannah Clapp

07, Feb, 2016 @8:00 AM

Article image
Four Quartets review – Ralph Fiennes meets TS Eliot in a triumphant return
The actor and director gives a compelling performance of the poet’s wartime epic in this solo show

Clare Brennan

06, Jun, 2021 @9:30 AM

Article image
Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo win at Evening Standard theatre awards
Duo triumph for performances in Antony and Cleopatra, as Hamilton and Company also land prizes

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

18, Nov, 2018 @10:45 PM

Article image
Antony and Cleopatra review – Okonedo and Fiennes are a magnificent match
Simon Godwin directs a terrific and epic National Theatre production, filled with passion and delusion

Michael Billington

27, Sep, 2018 @10:11 AM

Article image
The River; NSFW – review
Jez Butterworth's rich and intriguing follow-up to Jerusalem and a satire set in the world of 'lad' journalism show the variety of talent at the Royal Court, writes Susannah Clapp

Susannah Clapp

04, Nov, 2012 @12:01 AM

Article image
Routes; Storm in a Flower Vase; The Last Yankee – review

Rachel De-lahay returns with spiky stories of immigration, while Constance Spry blossoms anew, writes Susannah Clapp

Susannah Clapp

28, Sep, 2013 @11:05 PM

Article image
Strange Interlude; A Midsummer Night's Dream; Trash Cuisine – review

Fine performances cannot overcome the central flaw of O'Neill's 1928 drama, writes Susannah Clapp

Susannah Clapp

08, Jun, 2013 @11:05 PM

Article image
Romeo & Juliet review – Jessie Buckley and Josh O’Connor are outstanding
Buckley and O’Connor head a terrific cast in this imaginatively pared down, made-for-TV production

Susannah Clapp

11, Apr, 2021 @9:30 AM