Is Ralph Fiennes a Superman in Shaw's play?
Simon Godwin's production of Man and Superman runs at the National Theatre until 17 May
…thinking caps on and eyes down for three and a half hours of Ralph Fiennes speaking beautifully in the Lyttelton… It's a cunning version, this, excising the difficult passages about eugenics and playing down the übermensch, Nietzschean superhero side of things, though Fiennes does resemble a sort of comical Shaw as John Tanner, bristling with an electrified energy from the moment he enters in modern dress… The only trouble is that no-one else in the cast matches the Fiennes iciness or killer articulation… Fiennes carries the burden of the play with enormous zest and skill, and it's a treat to hear him supervise a cascade of such brilliant writing… The evening only becomes hard work after about three hours, and it's good for you…
…I thought I'd be exhausted after such a marathon, which runs to over three and a half hours in Simon Godwin's production, but the work's intellectual energy and comic zest is infectious… It's Fiennes's night – and it's one of triumphant vigour and versatility… the actor maximises the twinkling, good-humoured charisma of the man, while letting you appreciate his volatile mixture of self-certainty, cynicism and borderline hysteria. Has he ever been more in command on stage? When he and Indira Varma's attractive, poised and coolly appraising Ann do finally let love conquer all… the evening, blessed with galvanised performances across the board from a tireless ensemble, achieves a matching Shakespearean warmth that is as delightful as it is surprising. Super, man.
This is an extremely strange play - part comedy of manners, part philosophical debate… it's given appealing vitality by director Simon Godwin and his star Ralph Fiennes… Fiennes's charisma is constant. Though he relishes the character's manic exhibitionism, he makes him feel bracingly intelligent. As for the play, it can seem like an exercise in disproving the saying "Less is more". It starts slowly and sprawls madly. Its plot defies brisk summary. But this revival is packed with memorable things, some Shaw's and some not - classy supporting performances from Faye Castelow and Nicholas Le Prevost, a droll nod to Desert Island Discs, moments of ferocious conflict and a wealth of quotable lines.
…Simon Godwin's remarkably assured and effervescent modern-dress production of Man and Superman kicks off, though, with a cheeky but pertinent Desert Island Discs gag… Man and Superman doesn't often get an outing - it was last staged at the NT in 1981 with Daniel Massey - and it's not hard to see why. But Godwin has edited down its daunting length to a very manageable three hours… And Ralph Fiennes gives one of the best performances of his career as Jack Tanner… Fiennes in his charismatic, very intriguing account of the character… The cast are superlative with Tim McMullan excelling as a cool-cat, skinny-jeaned Devil, mellifluously almost getting the better of the argument in hell, and as a woebegone Spanish brigand whose solemn recital of his preposterous, love-lorn verses is blissfully funny. Keenly recommended.
...What is astonishing about Godwin's production is that it triumphs where Shaw's play is most difficult… In a masterly performance, Fiennes catches all Tanner's contradictions… By casting Indira Varma in the role [of Ann], the production gives her a sexual glamour that makes Tanner's pretended resistance look palpably absurd: what Varma also catches excellently is Ann's mix of calculation and charm. There is a supremely funny performance from Tim McMullan… there is good work from Faye Castelow as a hard-headed romantic fugitive and Nicholas Le Prevost… Even I, as an ardent Shavian, would concede there are moments when you wish the old boy would get a move on. But his wit, often funnier than that of Wilde, endures…
Who's for a three-and-a-half-hour Edwardian romantic comedy rich with philosophical debate?... Fiennes proves his star status in every moment of this marathon role… Yet Simon Godwin's playful, modern-day production proves that this rambling play is a rewarding one too. You won't pick up every detail of Tanner's diatribes as he tries to evolve beyond conventional thinking and living… It is odd, ironic, bloated, but memorably funny and bold. Among a fine supporting cast, Indira Varma is a triumph as Anna, who is determined to marry Jack. She makes all these conceits sound natural… Though the first half moves slowly, Man and Superman gets stranger and better as it goes… Fiennes is on top of it all: tightly wound yet visibly having fun, he motors out impassioned speeches…
Man and Superman continues in the NT Lyttelton until 17 May. It will be broadcast via NT Live on 14 May