He’s great isn’t he, Ralph?
He manages to make a character like Amon Goeth (the concentration camp Commandant in Schindler’s List) almost human, he makes a snake-face evil wizard plausible (oh come on, he does), and his poetry-reciting concierge-cum-gigolo M. Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel, had me in stitches with just a little twitch of the eyebrow. So it’s safe to say that when the National Theatre billed Ralph Fiennes as the lead in George Bernard Shaw’s, Man and Superman, I rushed to get tickets.
I would love to say it is because I am so high-brow that I was already familiar with Bernard Shaw’s plays (well, I’ve seen My Fair Lady – does that count?), or that I’ve properly read Nietzsche’s same titled philosophy, or that I have seen any of Simon Godwin’s critically acclaimed plays. I’m not even too familiar with the various embodiments of Don Juan. In fact I thought the definition of a ‘Don Juan’ was a shifty looking man in a white suit drinking a Cinzano, while propping up the barmaid at the end of a bar in Magaluf. It’s safe to say the position of my brows is fairly low. So, I found myself seated at the NT with fairly few expectations apart from that Ralph was going to be ace.
The stage opens to a sound recording of Fiennes’ character (the socialist-gentleman, Jack Tanner) being interviewed by Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs – the modern barometer of success. The radio is quickly turned off in disgust by his moral-nemesis – and soon to be revealed co-guardian of the heiress Ann Whitefield – Roebuck Ramsden (Nicholas le Prevost). Within ten minutes Tanner bounds on (and then hardly leaves the stage for the entire performance) and he and Ramsden set the tone of the play with a duel of beautifully crafted dialogue, about the redundancy of fuddy-duddy Victorian morals compared to Tanner’s free-thinking pretense-smashing Socialism.
Shaw pokes fun at the champagne-socialists – a group to which the chauffeur-driven Tanner definitely subscribes – but affectionately uses him as the spokesman against marriage, class-divide and religion. One memorable line on meeting the bandit, Mendoza (the excellent, Tim McMullan) – a love-lorne poet set on righting the existing distribution of wealth, by robbing cars in the Sierra desert – ‘I am a brigand: I live by robbing the rich’ Mendoza says, to which Tanner replies, ‘I am a gentleman: I live by robbing the poor.’
Tanner’s outlook is questioned throughout the play, particularly when he dreams he is Don Juan in hell – a scene often left out of the play because it is both long and meandering, but I found extremely enjoyable – and you can’t help cheering for Tanner as he doggedly wades against his class and the ambitions of everyone surrounding him. Ultimately Tanner is beaten into submission by the crafty ‘boa-constrictor’ Ann (Indira Varma) who eventually tricks him into marrying her.
It’s been cleverly modernised from 1903 to a contemporary setting, and the staging and costume tread an interesting line. It is undeniably modern dress but could easily be a period piece with smart-country-casual slacks in vibrant colours that pop up in Richmond, and beautiful classic car that Ralph drives on stage, but the use of mobile phones to replace letters jolted me into this century again. The costume of privilege hasn’t changed much – was that point that they were making? It all felt incredibly relevant the week before the election, and from the interval chat that I could hear it was clear that I wasn’t the only member of the audience that felt it was deliberately timed.
Predictably Fiennes was fantastic. More than I hoped to expect in fact. This was probably due to the rest of the cast setting the bar incredibly high. You could tell that they fed off each other’s energy and so at the final curtain Fiennes literally skipped on stage. This review really doesn’t do justice to the nuances of Shaw’s play, the performances of all the cast, nor Simon Godwin but I can safely say it was one of the best pieces of theatre I have seen and I still buzz from the memory of it. I urge you to go and see it at a NT encore screening at a cinema near you – I might see you there.