George Bernard Shaw couldn’t have described Man and Superman more simply or more adequately when he labelled it in 1903 a “comedy and a philosophy”. Incessantly verbose but always scathingly witty, there is socialist tact and moral didacticism at the heart of its four-hour running time. More often than not, the famous “Don Juan in Hell” scene is cut, but having experienced Simon Godwin’s triumphant production at the National Theatre it seems strange to imagine the play ever being performed without it.
The Don Juan myth is, after all, integral to the play. Shaw revamps the classic story with a Nietzschean twist in order to debate issues of man, marriage, and mutability. Ralph Fiennes is Jack Tanner, a notorious revolutionary cynic who wholeheartedly intends to remain a bachelor for the rest of his life. His self-assured path is shattered, however, at the persistence of young “boa constrictor” Ann Whitefield, who wishes more than anything to become Mrs. Tanner. At the whim of this basic narrative, Shaw catapults the play to and fro across an erratic global course – ranging from London to Granada, and of course casually stopping by in Hell itself.
Godwin’s production is wise to take advantage of the ever-changing locations, which follow the course of Jack’s unpredictable odyssey to escape Ann’s clutches. The handsome study of Roebuck Ramsden morphs effortlessly into the sandy plains of Sierra Navada, but most spectacular of all is the stage assembled to depict Don Juan’s voyage to the underworld. Almost blinded by light, we find ourselves squinting at a bleached desert of emptiness, marked by a glistening elevator that travels back and forth between Heaven and Hell (equipped with a signature ding!). Upon the enormous upstage panels are ambiguous glacial images – surreal waves of movement – designed to subtly float and glide against the backdrop of Don Juan’s electric debate with the Devil. We see a colossal eye slowly blink, and shadowy figures walk briskly back and forth. These mirages are on the brink of becoming distracting, but the central discussion is just too fascinating to ignore.
Fiennes is superbly charismatic and contradictory as both Tanner and Don Juan, not so much a Casanova as a Socratic substitute. His face-off with the Devil – deliciously played as a suavely baritone aristocrat by Tim McMullan – is richly compelling from start to finish. The entire scene isn’t essential to the narrative, of course, but it’s an enthralling consideration of the philosophy of man and the ‘life force’ that guides him. Adding impeccable blustering and pompous comedy is Nicholas le Provost as both Roebuck Ramsden and the Statue Don Gonzalo in Hell (sporting a delightfully tiny pair of angelic wings). Ramsden’s stoic conservatism is the perfect contrast to Tanner’s whirlwind revolutionary. Topping the leading cast off is Indira Varma as the domineeringly free-spirited Ann Whitefield (or Ana, in Hell), whose elegant man-eater is the ideal poised and cogent counterbalance to Fiennes’ irrationally slippery Jack Tanner.
The pseudo-modern setting is momentarily perplexing – an old-fashioned car is complicated by the brief and perhaps unnecessary use of a smartphone, but these are minor hiccups. The main issue of the play’s updating is that many of its central shock factors are diminished by our modern society; an unmarried pregnant woman and the struggles of an uneducated chauffeur are hardly scandalous or distressing to us now. In spite of this, however, Shaw’s play has aged remarkably well. We still muse every day on the hypocrisy and philosophy of humankind. We still fiercely debate the differences between men and women. We are still incessantly perplexed by the ‘life force’ pumping through our veins.