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Man and Superman

Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma in Man and Superman. Photo: Tristram Kenton Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma in Man and Superman. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Some actors have a long appointment with a role. Ralph Fiennes first played Jack Tanner, the philosophising, determinedly single hero of Shaw’s Man and Superman, in a 1996 BBC Radio production that also starred Nicholas le Prevost as Octavius Robinson, the young man in love with Tanner’s ward Ann Whitehead.

At least on the radio you don’t have to memorise the lines; but now, nearly 20 years later, Fiennes has kept his appointment with Tanner (and is joined again by Le Prevost, though the latter has graduated to the role of elder stateman Roebuck Ramsden, who disapproves of Tanner).

Onstage virtually throughout, Fiennes may speak roughly half the play’s 57,000 words, but this is more than a mere memory feat. It’s also an exercise in dominating the stage, not just with a positive torrent of words but also a force of personality that makes you want to listen to him.

Shaw’s play may sometimes feel like a giddily verbose philosophy lesson that makes Stoppard’s new work, The Hard Problem (also playing at the National), seem brief and to the point (which it is, at nearly half the length). Stoppard, in fact, shares with Shaw an attempt at fashioning a modern romantic comedy around big questions about love and the universe.

The skill of Simon Godwin’s playful production, and in particular of Fiennes’ restless, questing performance, in which he employs a Bill Nighy-like ability to suggest his body is as free-ranging yet as tightly coiled as his mind, is to keep us constantly engaged with those questions.

It’s a play that keeps you dizzy with delight at the speed of thought and observation. There’s also a bravura, devil-may-care sense of absurdity, too, which is appropriate given that the underworld itself makes an appearance in the fanciful Act III, in which Tanner, in a dream sequence, goes to hell as Don Juan (the scene is often cut, but is here one of the show’s highlights).

You don’t want caution in a production of Man and Superman, and director Godwin throws it entirely to the wind with an outrageous troop of Spanish bandits, led by the scene-stealing Tim McMullan as Mendoza. The performance embodies the madcap silliness of Shaw at his most playful.

Christopher Oram’s series of location settings, which stretch from the realism of the study of a grand London house to a fanciful representation of hell, unfold with wit and beauty.

I last saw the play at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket in 1982, in a production that starred Peter O’Toole as Tanner. If it’s unimaginable that it would be staged in the West End nowadays, it’s good to know there’s still a home for it, and an actor’s ambitions, at the National.

Dates: February 17-May 17, PN February 25

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Shaw’s rarely staged play has lots of talk, but it’s worth hearing in Ralph Fiennes’ brilliant delivery