Reading a George Bernard Shaw play can be a dry and tedious affair: all those endless monologues of ideas, all that gnawing at dead Edwardian moralities. And in the first minutes of “Man and Superman”, which opened at the National Theatre in London last night, there doesn’t seem to be much to lift the 21st-century heart. A white-haired man in a pin-stripe suit sits reading a will in an Edwardian library; a lovesick young man enters to discuss the potential marriage of his guardian. So far, so creaky, even with the deliciously pompous Nicholas Le Provost booming and tutting as the paterfamilias. And then the double doors slam open and in bursts—Leonard Rossiter!
Well, no. It was in fact Ralph Fiennes as Jack Tanner, Shaw’s comic incarnation of himself as a young(ish) revolutionary in passionate pursuit of man’s Higher Purpose—and in equally panicked flight from what’s called, euphemistically, the “Life Force”. (Sex. Women. Babies.) But shoulders hunched, hands thrust deep in his pockets, rocked back on his heels, he exactly echoed the late Rossiter as the landlord Rigsby in the 1970s sitcom “Rising Damp”. It might have been an unconscious choice by Fiennes, but it works—Rigsby was, famously, a man horrified by others’ desires while at the twitching mercy of his own.
In recent years we’ve got used to Fiennes in fearsome mode: stern, hawkish and mad as the tragic hero in “Oedipus”, “Coriolanus” or “Brand”. Even his comic turn in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was rigidly upright, a head swivelling on a butler’s poker-straight spine. Here, from his first entrance, he’s all fluidity: throwing his torso forward from the hips, loping across the stage in long bounds; arms windmilling, hands shaping the air into the form of his ideas.
He’s hardly ever off stage in a three-and-a-half-hour production, and the structure of the play—two-thirds sparky drawing-room comedy, one third surreal and prosy philosophic tract—requires masterly control of pace if the audience isn’t going to agree with the play’s final line: “Stop talking!” But masterly is exactly what Fiennes is. Never mind Hamlet, this is a tour de force performance. His ducking, sliding and shrugging keeps your attention flowing with him, while your intellect engages with the up and down of Shaw’s arguments. It means that what is potentially the dullest moment of the evening—the extended dialogue in hell between Lucifer (a slyly sexy Tim McMullan, having 20 different kinds of fun) and Tanner, dreaming that he is Don Juan—becomes vital and entertaining, and adds multiple layers of poignancy and resonance to the romantic folderol that brackets it.
The play was written in 1905, but under Simon Godwin’s direction you see just how modern a piece this is, looking backwards, sideways and forwards. Though Shaw professed to hate Shakespeare, his language infiltrates almost every scene; that you can occasionally hear Oscar Wilde in the structure of jokes is no surprise. But Noel Coward? Sartre? Caryl Churchill, even? That’s some theatrical prescience. Christopher Oram’s design underlines this temporal slipperiness with any-time-and-no-time modern dress, and a set that deftly encompasses French-window domesticity, a ridiculous Spanish mountainside straight out of panto, and a “Huis Clos”-like fluorescent white underworld, complete with video projections of mushroom clouds and blood corpuscles.
The effect is entirely vivifying. By the end of the evening you have a sense of Shaw not as the stereotypical old Edwardian crank, the proto-feminist who seemed, perversely, to hate women, but as an intensely alive man, in all his multi-dimensional complexity. Battered by emotions as much as concepts, he calls to us across the intervening century. No accident, then, that on the cover of the programme Fiennes is pictured bending an ear to a bust of Shaw—as if he knows just what the old man is saying.
Man and Superman National Theatre, London, to May 17th
Read more Two years with Ralph Fiennes, by Julie Kavanagh