Man and Superman


In his final season as artistic director of the National Theatre, it’s as if Nick Hytner isn’t content with having established a legacy unequalled by any of his predecessors, throwing big-name stars on both sides of the stage together with equally big productions. If not all of these work (The Hard Problem, anyone?), it’s certainly a testament to his ambition, just as it is admirable that many of the best actors and directors assemble to deal with tricky, ‘difficult’ plays that are nevertheless sell-out hits. The latest of these, Bernard Shaw’s notoriously hard-to-stage Man and Superman, is great fun thanks to its stars; the suspicion lingers that it shouldn’t be, but you’re unlikely to mind too much.

Those who are expecting a prequel to Man Of Steel might be disappointed, although there’s certainly something equally steely about Ralph Fiennes’s central performance as Jack Tanner, a wealthy anarchist bachelor (aren’t they all), whose carefully considered existence is thrown into chaos when he realises that his ward-by-will Ann (Indira Varma) is in love with him. Fleeing the scene with her in hot pursuit, he falls in with a group of ruthless but polite bandits, whose leader quotes dire love poetry. And then there’s a dream scene set in hell, complete with drinks trolley…


The third act has often been cut in production, because it’s the real oddity of the play. It’s not dramatic, as such, more a dialogue between Tanner (as Don Juan), the Devil and Ann (as Donna Ana) about the nature of male and female relations. As played here in Simon Godwin’s production, it’s thought-provoking stuff, but moves at such a fast clip that sometimes you begin to wonder whether you heard the last line correctly. This is both a strength and a weakness of the entire evening; compressing a play that sometimes takes five hours to perform into three and a half (including interval) is no mean feat, but it dashes past with near-desperate celerity. Perhaps there’s a lot to be said for this (last trains, last orders and so forth) but it does sometimes feel like the beginner’s guide to Bernard Shaw rather than a more in-depth investigation.

But no matter. It’s splendidly anchored by a proper star performance by Fiennes, making an overdue return to the National as the dashing, if unreliable Tanner, who channels some of the charm and mania of his much-acclaimed lead role from The Grand Budapest Hotel into the part, selling the idea that this man would be both irresistible and irritating to Varma’s prototypical feminist. There are some entertaining supporting performances, most notably from Tim McMullan as both a suave Devil and a lovelorn bandit, and Christopher Oram’s design is boldly modernist without being attention-seeking. The text has, as is usual, been trimmed, and, less obviously, been modernised; it comes as a surprise to hear references to texting and the Financial Times, but there’s a delicious opening joke that’s too good to spoil here.

It’s as sold out as a Led Zeppelin reunion gig, but there’s a NT Live screening on 14th May. If you fancy a good night out at a 3 and a half hour long Bernard Shaw play – and that isn’t an oxymoron – then you’re not going to get a better chance.

Until 17th May. For more information, visit the website.