Man and Superman at the National Theatre starring Ralph Fiennes was an infusion between a metaphysical debate and a farcical comedy. This sounds like a bad thing but by all means it was not! The discussions raised in the play were fast-paced, witty and potent, with an emphasis on our social awareness of gender equality.
It was labelled as a romantic comedy and whilst there is a love story within the play, it is only there to be used to fuel the continuous philosophical debates (which to be fair are far more interesting than the same love story we’ve witnessed a million times).
Fiennes plays the role of Jack Tanner, a progressive and radical thinker (in the times of Shaw) and his ultimate goal is to reach beyond all temporary pleasures of man on earth and focus upon becoming more than man as we know it; to become a ‘superman’ in terms of thought, creativity and progression. This means he constantly fights against the concept of domestic bliss as he denies women’s love because he feels it is an entrapment of himself and will stop his transcendence into a ‘superman’.
The ideas within the play are complex and thanks to Fiennes’s dexterity with words, the ideas flow fluidly and excitedly throughout the entire production. The text is difficult yet Fiennes’s delivery is phenomenal and exceptional as he weaves his way through lengthy monologues on topics from morality to love.
Due to the almost lecture-like feel of the play, humour played an incredibly important role. Man and Superman successfully managed to make fun of itself and carried great laugh out loud comedy throughout. Due to the theoretical ideas being so dense it was a relief to hear witty respites of “you are extremely fond of hearing yourself talk” and “you have more brain than good for you” from the characters to play up to the audience.
Another great joy was Tim McMullan who shined in his roles of Mendoza – a Spanish socialist – and the Devil. His stage presence, timing and the hilarity of his roles, combined with his utter charm lifted every scene.
The fact that Shaw wrote this play at the time he did is significant: in the play it’s the woman who mercilessly chases the man, and it is also interesting how the male protagonist is always trying to divert the natural romantic course of the play whilst the protagonist female character Ann is made out to be clever, determined and somewhat manipulative. The feminist in me cried ‘hang on, you’re making women appear like vile, ensnaring creatures who only use men to procreate’ but it occurs to you that this in itself was quite an extraordinary thing for that time, making a woman appear as driven and resourceful instead of a mere belonging to be maneouvred for power. In the play Ann says it better than anyone “What is womanly? Is it unwomanly to be hard and business like?”. When Shaw wrote this in 1903 he himself was definitely trying to progress beyond the herd-like thinking of his time.
With its verbal gymnastics and philosophical ideas Man and Superman will certainly be on the list of plays to watch this year.
Man and Superman is playing at the National Theatre until 17 May and will be broadcast as part of National Theatre Live on 14 May. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website.