Theatre review: Tour de force Ralph Fiennes steals the show in Man and Superman

Ralph Fiennes is electric in this wordy extravaganza

Lyttelton Theatre | ★★★★☆

Whew, how he does talk!” So exclaims the commodore from Don Juan, listening in as Ralph Fiennes’ garrulous Juan debates with the Devil. The same applies to Jack Tanner, Juan’s descendant and the protagonist of this supremely wordy play. First performed in 1905, George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman may be a romantic comedy, but its relentless wit surrounds a mountain of philosophic conjecture, largely delivered by Fiennes.
And what a delivery. Tanner is a man of startling contradictions, both loquacious dandy and hypocritical bore, dazzlingly assured and yet ultimately vulnerable. Fiennes plays him with incredible verve, capturing his character from every angle. There are glimmers of Gustave H from The Grand Budapest Hotel in his silver-tongued suaveness, but here the charisma is just one facet. As Don Juan imagined by Tanner in a dream, Fiennes exudes a melancholy fervour, caught between striving and hopelessness.
His linguistic mastery is breathtaking, lending an almost Shakespearian rhythm to Shaw’s prose, and this alone makes this production a marvel.
The dual structure of the play, in which an Edwardian comedy of manners encloses a metaphysical dream sequence, grants the whole piece an exaggerated hyperreality. It feels like the world’s most intellectual sitcom, set in some strange junction between Oscar Wilde and Goethe’s Faust. The cast embrace this with aplomb. As Ann Whitfield, the Beatrice to Tanner’s Benedick, Indira Varma winningly conveys a mixture of cold manipulation and magnetic charm. Tim McMullan is excellent both as a desperately romantic bandit and a slickly hospitable Satan.
Shaw’s play is as much a literary work as a performance piece. Characters are prone to standing around as others declaim, giving some passages a visual staticity that makes an interesting counterpoint to its verbal contortions. But this is an issue with the text, not the production. Director Simon Goodwin’s judicious cuts keep the dialogue fizzing along, and the uncluttered sets underscore that this a play grounded in conversation rather than action. The walls of white panels that dominate the stage are used to mesmeric effect in the dream sequence, alternatively blinding us with unearthly light and plunging us into darkness.
Man and Superman requires work. Though often hilarious, it hinges upon ideas, many of them mired in Shaw’s early twentieth century milieu. The arch delivery forsakes realism for a heightened theatricality often scorned in contemporary theatre. Open yourself up to it though, and you’ll find the most satisfying production of the year so far.

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