There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it.
Since I was first introduced to the idea of NT: Live a few years back with an encore screening of Danny Boyle’s awesome Frankenstein, I’d hoped that one day I’d be able to be in the audience at The National myself, not just enjoying the productions when they are shown in cinemas. My opportunity came back on May 3rd, with a trip to see the incredible Ralph Fiennes leading a production of George Bernard Shaw’s play Man & Superman. Unfortunately, the drama began a little sooner than we’d anticipated: we got completely and utterly lost on the way trying to find the level access to the theatre, and asking multiple people directions ended up in us being sent all and sundry, back and forth in and out of a load of different places, including the BFI. Now, as this was my first trip to The National and the area of the South Bank of London in general you could argue that getting lost was likely, and I’m confident that the more I visit the better I’ll get. That said, as we wandered around getting ever more frustrated as show time drew nearer, I was struck by how poorly signposted the area is; I’m very grateful my good friend Kristine was with me, it’s not a trek I’d want to take by myself until I’ve flexed my ‘independent around London’ muscles more. We made it to the theatre by the skin of our teeth (literally, as we were being escorted in, you heard the final call to take your seats, and I could hear what I assume is the Act One Beginners bell going off). My relief was profound, given that the theatre have a policy wherein latecomers aren’t admitted until almost an hour into the performance, which with a play like this would have spoiled the experience, and in my case, got me completely and utterly lost!
The production was staged in the Lyttleton, the smaller of the venues in the National. It’s a wonderfully intimate space that I loved being a part of. Unlike most theatres when I sit at the back, the layout meant I still had a good view of the action.
Looking back on it now, part of the fun of Shaw’s play is the fact is that it’s a mix of genres: part romantic comedy, part satire, part epic fairytale and thought provoking philosophical debate. As a complete newcomer to Shaw’s work I had no idea what to expect, and at times I found it incredibly challenging to get my head around, but in equal measure it was also incredibly witty and charming with some wonderful performances.
The story follows revolutionary thinker Jack Tanner, desperate to escape the jaws of domesticity closing in about him from a feisty heiress Ann. His quest also leads him to the Sierra Nevada where he encounters a band of anarchistic brigands, and a wickedly bizarre dream sequence which forms Act Three, which sees us meet Don Juan and The Devil down in Hell. The piece itself is incredibly wordy, and it raises some profound and interesting questions about life, relationships and the universe. Admittedly, I didn’t always understand the impact of what was being said because it’s thrown at you at such length and relentless speed; but my overriding sensation was the fact I wanted to listen and be engaged. Nowhere was my latter observation more significant than with Ralph Fiennes. As a longtime fan of his film work, it was an honour and a joy to be able to watch him live. Not only does he pull off an incredible feat of memory and stamina (he’s onstage virtually throughout and speaks roughly half of the plays 57,000 words) but gives a masterclass in how to command a stage: Shaw’s words poured from him with such passion, relentless energy and remarkable ease, it was awe inspiring to watch and hear unfold. It was also fun to see him let loose and have fun with the comedy having seen him in so many serious, dramatic film roles. It bought to mind how much I love his performance in Grand Budapest Hotel: quirky, warm and funny. Fiennes is joined by a supporting cast that give strong and impressive performances across the board, including Indira Varma as Ann, whose feisty performance is a great compliment to her leading man, Ferdinand Kingsley as the endearingly lovesick Octavius, Nick Hendrix as the charming American Hector Malone, and Tim McMullan who gives a scene stealing performance as the brigand Mendoza, and an equally brilliant turn as The Devil.
Simon Godwin is at the directing helm and he revels in the dizzyingly wordy playfulness of Shaw’s work, and he certainly knows how to bring out the best in his company. He is joined by Christopher Oram on the design front, whose series of location settings ranging from a beautiful stately study to the whimsically clever representation of Hell, captured my imagination in their inventiveness and ambition. James Farncombe (lighting), Luke Halls (video), Christopher Shutt (sound) and Darren Lang (illusions) complete the Design team, and the whole effect was of a production that boldly treads that line between fantasy and reality. Shaw’s play is apparently very rarely staged, and given its scope in terms of ideas and sheer volume of words, it might be easy to assume why that might be given the challenges this presents. However, it is assuring to know that there is a home for work and mighty ambitions like it at The National. If you’re unafraid of a monster running time, some pretty weighty ideas and speeches that might make your head spin with their relentless pace and nature, I’d urge everyone to check out the production when it hits cinemas around the UK from May 14th, and perhaps further afield later in the year. It’s an acting masterclass from Fiennes in particular, who is a joy from start to end.
Find your nearest Man and Superman screening here: http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/49348-man-and-superman