NT Live: Man and Superman


Man and Superman has been described as one of the most original of Bernard Shaw’s plays. When it was first produced in 1905 at the Court Theatre in Sloane Square, London, it was given 176 performances – far more than any other contemporary plays there – and Desmond McCarthy, a literary critic at the time, called it “the most brilliant piece of work Mr Shaw has done.” I would agree to a large extent with that statement, considering the sleek contemporary take on an early 1900’s play, which was acted out by a vibrant cast in an overacting, yet tasteful, style.

The staging this time around was at the National Theatre, with a very eclectic, strong cast, whose production was transmitted live to various cinemas in the country on the 14th of May. The Dukes in Lancaster was one of these cinemas (and will be screening an encore performance next week). Similar to how tickets for the big theatre shows sell out months in advance, the theatre seats were packed here too. In its full version the play runs well over four hours, so in recent years has been less often performed than other plays by Shaw and often without its third act ‘Don Juan in Hell’ scene. The NT’s new version restores this scene and trims the action to a compelling three and a half hours.

The story starts with the recent death of Mr. Whitefield and his will which indicates that his daughter Ann, played by Indira Varma, should be left in the care of two men: the esteemed , old-fashioned Roebuck Ramsden, Nicholas Le Prevost, and the neurotic man with revolutionary ideas, Jack Tanner, Ralph Fiennes. Regardless of Ramsden disapproval of Tanner as Anne’s guardian, she accepts him. What comes off as more ridiculous is that this is against Tanner’s will, as he finds Anne repulsive and mean. In turn Anne further frustrates Jack by defying his revolutionary ideas, by speaking against his belief that women simply trap men in order to use them for procreation. His speeches on the matter and others are at times farcical, as well as thought provoking, concerning issues of freedom, man’s shame and his pursuit of control in his life.

Simon Godwin, the director, staged the play brilliantly in a modern-dress production. While the story is set around Anne, the main protagonist is Tanner who speaks his opinion loudly, spits words of anger about the situation he finds himself in and tries to run away to Sierra Nevada to escape the “uncomfortable life of an English man”. He has a lot to say, as a revolutionary writer. His character is possessed with passion, yet his eloquent speech directs him well through the many debates we witness. While his hard exterior is seemingly tightly held, we slowly uncover layers of his emotions surfacing in the second act. Anne is also a rather cool character who comes across as bossy and unlikable, yet things start to change when we get to know that the two have repressed feelings for one another…

This version of Man and Superman was performed with a mixture of comedy and drama, the latter was reflective of what Shaw intended to put forward; the title comes from the Nietzche’s philosophical ideas in “Ubermensch”. In a pre-recorded interview which was screened in the fifteen minute interval, the director further spoke of the play’s mission which is to show the struggle people face when in love, how to love, how to open up to someone, how to commit. “Everyone has to negotiate about love at some point and I feel this would reach out to many people in the audience.” As much as Shaw had an optimism for human race, Godwin too adds that the piece should be as much representative of the idea of love as well as it being a personification of the ways in which Shaw presented his ideas – through his political involvements, speeches on street corners and humour. Laughter most certainly gels the storyline together.

The story throughout weaves  in and out of debates about human existentialism and consciousness, the latter being a strong theme in another NT’s recent show, The Hard Problem. These conversations most eloquently take place in the well-known hell sequence, which makes it worthy for including. There are debates about whether hell is more fun than heaven, while they sip on wine and devilish white fumed drinks, which the devil himself serves. Of course, the characters in hell are the same people that they were on earth, but they are dressed in a medieval style on a now more bare stage, with only a throne and a table for the drinks. The background projections of hell linger lightly and placidly, suggesting that despite the negative connotations of the colour red and hell together in this context the red symbolises passion, subverting the concept of hell.

The designer, Christopher Oram, uses great skill to merge the two realities, to provide a physical lift that transports one between hell and heaven, and to use an angelic white Jaguar as Tanner’s car in the earthly settings, to decorate a 1960’s brown hued parlour office, and also to provide tropical rocks for the dessert scenes. A colourful and loud blend of acting took audiences who watched from all over the UK more closely to the actions that were played out on the London stage. The success of the NT live screenings appears to still be blooming.

There will be an encore screening of Man and Superman at the Dukes on Thursday, week 5. Other screenings throughout term include Titus and Andronicus on the 7th June, Julius Caesar on the 25th June and Everyman on the 16th & 26th July.

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