This bombastic, infuriating play is epic: not just in the geographical sprawl of its ostensible plot or the dizzyingly long speeches that rush off the stage in a spray of tragi-comic philosophising. And not just because of its nearly four-hour running time. No, George Bernard Shaw’s 1905 mediation on life, love and theatre is also epically bonkers.
It’s a bit of a critic’s nightmare and – one suspects – deliberately so. This is Shaw coming close to baiting us at times, firing every weapon in his arsenal, gleefully revelling in setting up a superficially traditional drawing-room comedy and then playfully twisting it out of shape and (quite literally) taking it to hell and back.
Hell, by the way, is detachable. Man and Superman began life as book, with several sections that could (and would be) extracted to form the play. When the swaggering philosopher-cynic John Tanner, Shaw’s protagonist, falls asleep among brigands in Spain – where he’s fled from the posh houses of England in an ultimately futile attempt to escape marriage – he dreams of an afterlife in which he is Don Juan.
The National’s production reveals this in a sudden blackout as the pre-interval cliff-hanger. It’s a distillation of the distorted theatrics of Simon Godwin’s playfully clever staging, which include opening with Tanner’s Desert Island Discs. There’s a comic sharpness to this hyper-real naughtiness – a constant dual perspective – mirrored by the highly detailed chunks of set dwarfed by video screens of pixelated landscapes.
As Tanner, Ralph Fiennes sways constantly, as if in the same state of flux as the play in which his character seems haplessly aware he is. He’s part playwright-proxy and part fool – both exasperated spectator and victim in Shaw’s satirical jabs at theatre, socialism, life, the universe and everything. Tanner is a role that never lets up and Fiennes runs a marathon in his shoes.
The rest of the cast are as classy, with Nicholas Le Prevost doing some sterling blustering as stuffy conservative Roebuck Ramsden – reluctant joint guardian with Tanner of Ann, the woman the latter is going to marry – and an existentially bored angel. Meanwhile, Tim McMullan wraps himself up in Monty Python to make bad-poetry-spouting, nascent capitalist brigand Mendoza an absolute delight to watch.
Oh, and he’s also the Devil – here, a Soho lounge lizard pouring cocktails and in charge of a Hell where everyone is comfortable because, of course, sinning is all about self-indulgence. This section of the play – which is sometimes left out – sparkles and bewilders. It’s a four-way debate on religion and love that somehow manages to be hugely self-important while tickling its own pomposity into something deeper.
If the play loses momentum at all, it’s immediately after this trippy trip into the metaphysical afterlife. The farcical convolutions of Tanner’s Benedick-Beatrice continental entanglement with the silver-tongued and utterly unstoppable Ann are fun, and an impressive Indira Varma claims as much of the stage as Fiennes. But after the unadorned grandstanding of Hell, they feel a little prosaic. And that’s saying something.
If this play was just a big up-yours to the audience, it would be incredibly irritating. And there are certainly moments where it’s a bit sneery and when its ‘look at me’ cleverness outstrips its wit. But those three and a half hours zoom by. And that’s not only because the characters chuck out comic gems every few seconds; Man and Superman bristles with ideas about self-delusion and faith – about the lies we tell ourselves. And at times, when it’s at its most piercingly lunatic, it soars.