Things in the first half had been 'ding dong'. The production sparkling with an outstanding central performance by Will Keen. And then, early in the second half, Shaw produces his soapbox, shuffles his notes, and launches into one of the most tedious, protracted and completely unnecessary scenes it has ever been my misfortune to sit through. Civilisations rose and fell. Hope died.
If Peter Hall doesn't have a red pen I can lend him one. Without the 'Don Juan in Hell' scene, this production would be a joy and a good deal shorter than its current running time of three-and-a-half-hours. With it, well, as the Bard, against whom Shaw often inveighed, put it, "patience and sorrow strove".
The programme notes the debt of the play, said scene aside, to Much Ado About Nothing with Jack Tanner (Keen) and Ann Whitefield (Rebecca Hall) standing in for Benedick and Beatrice. Certainly Shaw is on form with the dialogue he produces. ("A lifetime of happiness? No man could bear it".)
Jack, rich but self-appointed revolutionary, has been appointed joint guardian to his childhood friend Ann Whitefield following her father's death. The other guardian, the splendidly-named Roebuck Ramsden, is outraged. Tanner, however is panicked, rightly sensing an impending catastrophe he is powerless to avert. Its true nature though he does not grasp until too late.
Will Keen is glorious, if occasionally over strident, Rebecca Hall, however, gives a 'turn' which has little sense of interiority. She is charismatic, confident but does not inhabit the role. Fortunately there is excellent support, particularly from James Laurenson as Rosebuck Ramsden and Statue, William Chubb as Mendoza and the Devil, and Sophie Winkleman as Violet.
There is much to be savoured in this production in which Shaw punctures pomposity and humbuggery with customary wit and élan. However, pleasantries yield to pedantry for much of the second half. If, like Lear, you can cry, "pour on, I will endure" as the second half stretches out before you like a three-day test there's fun to be had. But it's not for the faint of heart.
- Pete Wood