What a piece of work is “Man and Superman”? Hard work, to be frank. George Bernard Shaw’s experimental juggernaut — deemed unstageable in 1903 — makes for three and a half hours of tangled philosophy: a blow-away light comedy weighed down by footnotes. It’s a play for changing times, a bid to throw off the past and make things anew, and yet Simon Godwin’s handsome, modern-dress revival at the National Theater treats it as a cultural artifact. His production abandons its audience, offering no clues for decoding the text, while Ralph Fiennes plays the motor-mouth social reformer Jack Tanner like a tongue-twister challenge. You keep up or else.
Part of the problem is that the old rom-com conventions that Shaw so wholly overturns no longer apply. Today, there’s nothing particularly progressive about Ann Whitefield (Indira Varma) pursuing Tanner, a descendant of Don Juan who is appointed her guardian, nor about a working class manservant outsmarting his aristocrat masters as Elliot Barnes-Worrell’s “New Man” Straker does. Meanwhile, Ann’s sister Violet (Faye Castelow) has defied convention to marry in secret, without parental consent, only she won’t name her new husband. Others might frown, but Tanner’s all for it.
If we don’t see that modernizing spirit throughout — Shaw reworking a staid comic format — all the highfalutin wit and chitter-chatter about revolution and reform (and there’s a lot of it) feels tacked on and arbitrary. Having fled to Spain to escape Ann’s advances, Tanner finds himself ambushed by a band of brigands — all Russell Brand lookalikes led by Tim McMullan’s Mendoza, banging on about the redistribution of wealth and power. “I’m a brigand,” says Mendoza, “I live by robbing the rich.” “I’m a gentleman,” replies Tanner. “I live by robbing the poor.”
As a formal gesture, though, the play still feels radical: Shaw punches a hole in the middle of this breezy comedy of manners. He interrupts proceedings to stage a lengthy debate between Don Juan and the devil, about the nature of man and the various codes by which we live, be they moral, social or political. It’s often cut or sometimes played as a stand-alone short, but it provides the play’s crux and Godwin’s wise to keep it.
If anything, it’s the rest that feels flabby and frustrating, the sort of somersaulting verbosity that gets laughs because it sounds clever, not because it’s funny. One of hell’s debaters talks of weary concertgoers who attend “not because they really like classical music, but because they think they ought to like it.” Cough, splutter, etc. In staging it straight, albeit in modern dress and at a clip to make the last train home, Godwin makes no attempt to remake the play for a contemporary audience. That seems totally against the spirit of the play, and the gorgeousness of Christopher Oram’s set and Luke Hall’s skyscape video design is no recompense.
Instead, we get a posturing, voluminous Fiennes, heeding meter over meaning, as a trustafarian Tanner in humble drainpipe jeans. It’s a performance almost as dated as the text, and his physicality is clumsy and deliberate; half thin-skinned, soft-souled renaissance man, half lascivious gremlin. Varma makes Ann a charming firecracker and McMullan runs wild with the dual role of Mendoza and the Devil, while there’s decent upper-crust support from Nicholas Le Prevost, Ferdinand Kinsley and Faye Castelow.
Still, as Hamlet would say, “Man and Superman” delights not me.