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The revival of George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Man and Superman’ at the National Theatre has proved a sell-out hit. Ralf Fiennes brings dazzle to the show, but can you mix philosophy and theatre, asks Stewart Who?
We were lucky to secure tickets to the National Theatre’s ‘Man and Superman’ starring Ralf Fiennes. Once the initial feeling of victory had subsided, our cultured joy was eroded by a vaguely philistine fear. Could we actually sit in a theatre, enjoying a play for three hours and forty minutes?
Once a production nudges past two hours, it enters a realm where entertainment presents a sporting challenge rather than artistic escape or enrichment.
As a drama graduate and a pretentious queer, I’ve sucked up an epic amount of avant-garde theatre, underground performance art and explorations of patience dressed up as challenging creativity. I don’t regret a second, but my cavalier habits have given way to middle-aged caution.
Old and careworn
As I hurtle to my grave, I’ve become less concerned with fashion and a need to impress myself or others. I’ve been splashed with the blood of an S&M gymnast swinging from their piercings and gamely endured a four-hour improvisation featuring actors with learning difficulties which was unduly cruel to both the cast and the audience.
Blood and madness
In the early ‘90s, I played Jean-Paul Marat in a Liverpool production of the Marat/Sade. Set in a mental institution, it was three hours long and rehearsals involved intense workshops on the themes of insanity, cruelty, incarceration and death.
In short, I’ve done my time, proved my mettle and can be content with Radio 2 and a good episode of ‘Scott & Bailey’. Fuck princely struggle, comfort is now my queen.
Four of us were attending Man and Superman and in the weeks preceding the event, the only topic of discussion was how we could endure its length. Ask any of us to spend six hours in a nightclub, or a week without sleep in Ibiza and we’d win medals for exertion beyond the call of duty.
I’ve spent hours in a toilet cubicle at a rave, which flew by in a blink, but a bad theatrical minute can bring time to a weeping halt. We were all terrified at the prospect.
Ralf Fiennes performance in this production has been trumpeted from many quarters. There’s a fine line between ‘performance of a lifetime’ and ‘hyped ham’. Ralf Fiennes kisses that line, but does so with such nuclear charm, gusto and skill that it’s hard not to be dazzled.
It’s a large performance, but the character requires it and there’s no denying his presence. Fiennes shines on that stage, filling the auditorium with a Hollywood gleam and an alarming wave of sexual charisma. The hotness was quite unexpected. He still has it, in abundance.
Teaching and preaching
Shaw’s ‘Man and Superman’ isn’t so much a play, as an epic philosophical wank. Realistic dialogue is spurned for spewed pontifications, which are both exhausting and illuminating. The quality of the writing isn’t in question. The question is, how many ideas can the human brain absorb after a day at work, two commutes and three large gins?
Though the richness of ideas is tempered by pointed comedy, it’s a challenge to keep up, stay focussed and remember a word of it. Like a Michelin starred meal at an exclusive restaurant, one feels smug and bloated at the end of it, but aside from a fleeting buzz, the long term benefits are questionable.
Despite its intellectual obesity, this production delivers a thrill of cerebral stimulation that’s a funfair for the mind. It’s actually quite stimulating, if you can hold tight and concentrate.
Dragging this Victorian brain ache into the 21st century is a bold move, as the values Shaw questioned in 1903; faith, morality, marriage and class have undergone such revolutions, they’re almost unrecognisable.
Marrying someone from a lower class or having a child out-of-wedlock is modern sport, likely to be shared on Instagram. Neither prospect is a shrieking threat to the fabric of society, as it was in back then.
Some of Shaw’s literary arrows have lasted the distance. One of John Tanner’s outbursts in ‘Man and Superman’ could have been written by today’s PETA
“We cut the throat of a calf and hang it up by the heels to bleed to death so that our veal cutlet may be white; we nail geese to a board and cram them with food because we like the taste of liver disease; we tear birds to pieces to decorate our women’s hats; we mutilate domestic animals for no reason at all except to follow an instinctively cruel fashion; and we connive at the most abominable tortures in the hope of discovering some magical cure for our own diseases by them.”
Now and then
Christopher Oram’s contemporary stylings of this production are potentially jarring, but instead, they offer a sheen of familiarity and simplicity. It’s not just the set, the costumes and delivery often feels quite current.
Elliot Barnes-Worrell is particularly enjoyable as Straker, John Tanner’s chauffeur. He plays him as streetsy but eloquent rude boi, fresh from the streets of Hackney. Where the rest of the cast felt timeless, he turned out a bracing newness.
If you’re a fan of Shaw, philosophy or Ralf Fiennes, ‘Man and Superman’ is a total must. If you’re looking for a cheap, quick fix of fun, watch Spongebob Squarepants on nitrous oxide.