Theatre review: Man and Superman at the National Theatre

Tim McMullan and Ralph Fiennes in Man and Superman. Picture: Johan Persson

Tim McMullan and Ralph Fiennes in Man and Superman. Picture: Johan Persson - Credit: Archant

Ralph Fiennes shines on his return the stage in this Don Juan-inspired epic, says Miriam Gillinson

Ever heard of a philosophical comedy of manners? Neither have I - but that’s the best way to describe Bernard’s epic play ‘Man and Superman’. When the play premiered in 1903 the third act – the philosophical bit – was cut out. Unfortunately, director Simon Godwin has retained Act 3 and it doesn’t half slow things down. But despite this slip up, this is still a fiercely witty production, buoyed up by some brilliant theatrical flourishes and a dazzling central turn from Ralph Fiennes.

‘Man and Superman’ was originally a very (very) long book and is inspired by ‘Don Juan’. The Don Juan of our tale is Jack Tanner (Fiennes), an indefatigable philosopher who looks and sounds a lot like Shaw. In the opening scene, Tanner reluctantly agrees to become the guardian for his childhood friend Ann. The play is really their protracted love story – but there are also philosophical brainstorms aplenty, a bizarre scene with a bunch of Spanish brigands and an interlude in hell, where Jack transforms into Don Juan and has a chat with the devil.

Godwin’s last show at the National was a sharp take on O’Neill’s ‘Strange Interlude’ and he has a knack for tackling tricky classics with flair. Along with designer Christopher Oram and video designer Luke Halls, Godwin creates a weirdly slippery on-stage world. A sturdy study stands amid a haze of blue windows, a gleaming car is surrounded by a pulsing abstract landscape and hell is constructed out of a framework of screens, which glow fiery red or celestial white, depending on the mood.

It is a tough show to perform in – a sharp comedy, philosophical muse and surreal drama – but the cast excel. Indira Varma is exquisitely manipulative as the bright-eyed Ann, Nicholas LePrevost is a brilliantly blustering Polonius figure and Tim McMullan is gloriously seedy as the devil. But it is Ralph Fiennes who makes this show. Fiennes’ Tanner looks like a sprinter, panting through his speeches and always on the verge of fleeing. He makes light work of some heavy prose, delivers every quip with killer timing and, despite some seriously misogynistic rants, charms the pants off everyone. A born stage actor, Fiennes is back where he belongs.

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Rating: 4/5

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