17 May 2015

NT Live: Man and Superman

George Bernard Shaw’s comedy drama Man and Superman was published in 1903 and first performed in 1905. Set in an upper class London milieu, but one with ‘advanced’ (progressive as we might say) views, it revolves around a radical political activist, John Tanner, and his reluctance to form a relationship with his (feisty as we might say) ward, Anne Whitfield. Simon Godwin’s adaptation for the National Theatre includes the play’s rarely seen third act, a dream in which Tanner/Don Juan encounters Anne/Ana and the Devil in Hell (below). Ralph Fiennes’ Tanner is a tour de force of physical and mental stamina, with only the interval as respite over more than three hours, almost matched by that of Indira Varma as Anne, while Tim McMullan is so cool as the Devil.

Hell: Fiennes and other people
For me, the director’s decision to put Man and Superman in the present day (it starts with Desert Island Discs) rather than play it as a period piece led to some uneasy anomalies – Tanner receives a text message on his mobile phone and an American is the world’s largest office furniture manufacturer - he wouldn't be now, he would be a Chinese, from the country where the phone was made! More seriously, Shaw’s ideas about the relationships between men and women, the dominance in them of marriage
It is a woman’s business to get married as soon as possible, and a man’s to keep unmarried as long as he can.
‘the Life Force’ and ‘political economy’ belong in a remote world, not only more than a century ago but one that the First World War would turn upside down. Moving Shaw’s views to the present day makes them seem backward, misleadingly so when he was, in his time, a progressive and feminist.

The inclusion of the third act was probably a good idea in revival. Its removal in the past was possibly as much due to Shaw’s irreverence for religion – there is much ironic debate about the virtues of Hell as opposed to the dullness of Heaven - as it was for brevity. But the whole play should have been cut, retaining Shaw’s wit
There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it.
and removing his long windedness - a job for a Tom Stoppard.

As a NT Live production it seemed less ‘filmic’ in its use of close-up than The Hard Problem (posted about last month), but, for me, still spent too much time too close to actors whose technique was theatrical and meant to be seen at a distance. Nonetheless we hicks in the sticks remain grateful for the opportunity to see first rate ‘live’ performances which we wouldn’t get near otherwise. Next up here, Cumberbatch’s Hamlet in the autumn I hope.

There will be NT Live Encore performances of Man and Superman later this month and in June, depending on location. Good luck when you are trying to locate them on NT Live’s website.

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