Man and Superman – National Theatre London

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And now, my impressions on “Man and Superman”. This post will have more to do with sensations and very little with knowledge of the play itself. I have read the play once and I have seen it only once on stage, which means about twenty times less than the Merchant of Venice that I have read, seen thrice (including the Globe) on stage, watched the movie with Pacino and Irons, and heard about ten times this audible audiobook (and I was only able to write that lousy post, I told you, my inspiration has gone I don’t know where).

We arrived to the National Theatre after a morning in Tate Britain Museum. After such a lush explosion of colours in canvass, the grey atmosphere of the day and the building’s concrete were much appreciated by my over exposed retinas.

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As you see, the openign curtain was spectacular, consisting in a projection that reminded brain cells in movement. Christopher Oram was the set designer in this production; it’s impossible to compare this set with anything I’ve ever seen before on stage. Amazing and spectacular.

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The play is subtitled “A Comedy and a Philosophy”; and indeed it is two plays in one. On the one hand, the sophisticated comedy, dealing with the relationship between John Tanner and Anne Whitefield (the prodigious Indira Varma), and the other the onyrical descent to hell with John Tanner’s alter ego, Don Juan Tenorio.

Personally speaking, the third act in the Sierra Nevada (including the philosophycal dream) is my favourite part of the play that starts in the study of Mr. Roebuck Ramsdem (Nicholas le Prevost). He has just discovered that he has been appointed the guardian of a dear friend’s daughter, Anne Whitefield. The problem is, that there is another ward, John Tanner, author of a book entitled “Maxims for Revolutionists” by John Tanner, MIRC (Member of the Idle Rich Class); of course, Mr. Ramsdem ideas are everything but revolutionary.

When Mr. Ramsdem is talking in his study with the young Octavius Robinson (Ferdinand Kingsley) about this matter, John Tanner, who is as irritated by this nomination as the elder man, makes his appearance. And there he was, the big international star himself, Mr. Ralph Fiennes. What I admire the most in actors, apart from their ability in conveing emotions and give them to the public, the capacity of entering and leaving in the personality of other people who can be completley different from what they are, is their prodigious memory. And indeed Mr. Fiennes’ is extraordinary. John Tanner is the most verbose part I have ever read or heard; even THE STATUE (that has Roebuck Ramsdem’s feautres) will salute Don Juan in hell saying Whew! How he does talk! They’ll never stand it in heaven”. I must confess that during the long talks of John Tanner with Anne I had to make a huge effort to keep my eyes open. I can say in my defense that I felt a little bit tired after alll the emotions of the journey; my bowels came to wake me up, wondering rather loudly why I had not lunch yet at 2.45 pm. What an embarrassment. Fortunately they shut up in ten minutes.

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From left to right: Colin Haigh (The Anarchist), Naomi Cranston (The Sulky Social Democrat), Tim McMullan (Mendoza), Arthur Wilson (The Rowdy Social Democrat), Nicholas Bishop (The Frenchman). Source: National Theatre

Second act ends with John Tanner driving off from England to run away from Anne. He realizes,  thanks to his chauffeur Straker (Elliott Barnes-Worrell) , that Anne rejects the courtship of young Octavius because she wants to marry him. As John Tanner will say later in the play, “marriage is to me apostasy, profanation of the sanctuary of my soul, violation of my manhood, sale of my birthright, shameful surrender, ignominious capitulation, acceptance of defeat”. Therefore, he runs away… literally… Ralph Fiennes literally drives off a sportscar from the scene. The panel that divides the scene is lifted up, the scenery withdraws and off they go, and a mountain materializes from the backstage. We are now in the Sierra Nevada, where a group of peculiar English bandits assault the rich driving cars; in theory to give back to the poor, if the extravagant group formed by an Anarchist, a rowdy social-democrat, a sulky social-democrat, a Frenchman and their boss, Mendoza, will ever agree on anything.

Both in “Man and Superman” and in “The Merchant of Venice” I have appreciated the importance of the movement director. In Globe Theatre, during the famous trial scene, just with three actors behind the guards it was conveyed the idea of a crowd in a court. In Man and Superman Jonathan Goddard has coordinated the movement of the actors up and down the cardboard hill in an harmonious choreography.

When I read the play I laughed with Mendoza’s lines and I suspected that I’d need tissues, but Tim McMullan went definitely beyond my expectations, I just couldn’t help laughing and crying by laughter. I’ve realised that there are differences between what the English audience and myself find funny; I’ve had the impression that the English laugh more with puns and double senses, the laugh being like saying “I have understood the joke and I like it”. The English indeed find less funny than me the mockery of the Spanish accent when speaking English, something that happened in both of the plays. We Spaniards speak the most terrible English, and both Logan and McMullan nailed it. Mendoza’s band capture John Tanner, the bandit explains Tanner that he’s become an outlaw because of a woman that rejected him and “dramatic coincidence!” that woman is Straker’s (the chauffeur) sister. What literally knocked me off was the moment when Mendoza reads Tanner the love poems he’s composed dedicated to his love, Louisa.

Louisa, I love thee. / I love thee, Louisa. /Louisa, Louisa, Louisa, I love thee. /One name and one phrase make my music, Louisa. Louisa, Louisa, Louisa, I love thee. / Mendoza thy lover, / Thy lover, Mendoza, / Mendoza adoringly lives for Louisa, / There’s nothing but that in the world for Mendoza. /Louisa, Louisa, Mendoza adores thee.

I thought I was about to pee (sorry); tears ran down my cheeks, my make-up was blurring I could not stand more. McMullan shouting “Louisa!”, Ralph Fiennes’ faces, the rest of the bandits covering their ears with their blankets. It was too much for me. And, moreover, I could not get my tissues that, as always happen in these cases, have slipped to the very bottom of my bag. Nevertheless I managed to clean my eyes enough to see another spectacular set change. Finally all the bandits sleep, including Mendoza the lover and the suffering Tanner. The dividing panel lifts, the mountain withdraws. We’re transported to John Tanner’s dream. The lights have gone down, the notes of Mozart’s Don Giovanni fill the theatre, Ralph Fiennes has covered with a cape and a broad winged hat. The dividing panel goes down again, it is now bright white. A female figure approaches, an elderly woman according to her broken voice, she’s covered with a big shawl that hides her features. After a few words the woman asks Tanner, or rather, Don Juan: “where are we?”, he replies: “In hell”. Thunder, lights out, end of the first part and big round of applause.

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From left to right: Tim McMullan as the Devil, Indira Varma as Doña Ana, Ralph Fiennes as Don Juan, Nicholas Le Prevost as The Statue

G.B. Shaw said the “Hell – Dream” act could be removed without affecting the play as a whole. Fortunately director Nicholas Bishop decided to keep it. I will have missed very funny lines (The English really do not seem to know when they are thoroughly miserable. An Englishman thinks he is moral when he is only uncomfortable), some more unforgettable scene effects (the Statue coming down from Heaven in an elevator included a bell when it touches the floor, or the Devil coming up from the floor while sipping a cocktail) and one piece of audience-actors interaction. Don Juan is in Hell, but he would like to go to Heaven, not because he’s subject to neverendless torments, but basically because he’s bored. Anna is in hell but she would like to go to Heaven, otherwise “what will people think”. The Statue agrees with the Devil, Heaven is not such a big deal, full of people that are there not because they like it, but because they owe it to their position to be in heaven. They are almost all English”, and in that moment lights switch on up there in the gallery where we were and for the next minutes the actors watched us.

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Needless to say how the play ends, right? – Almost final scene, the lushing garden of a Villa in the outskirts of Granada

Well, to cut a three-and-a-half long story short: great play, magnificient actors and actresses, every penny I’ve spent in this trip was worth it. “Man and Superman” has ended its run this weekend but Mr. Fiennes will be back in London stages shortly (I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten which play and where), therefore for those of you who can: go and see Ralph Fiennes on stage, please do. He has an incredible comic ability, a prodigious memory (I know I’m quite obsessed but I’ve read elsewhere that we are talking of… 50.000 words!!!) and a natural elegance on stage. I will like so much to see him again in the theatre, maybe this time in a pure tragedy.

A final anecdote: after the play, we lingered a little still inside the theatre. I was sending some enthusiastic whatsapps to my friends thanks to the free wifi connection when hubby said here he is, here he is! I lifted suddenly my head as my husband is a walking find-the-celebrity radar, and indeed, here he was. Mr Fiennes going away the theatre, with his backpack, walking among the audience, looking the floor except for a one second glance towards us. I smiled and confirmed my opinion that the biggest, are the humblest.

PS. As in my Globe post: all cast was extraordinary, if I don’t write about each and every one of them it’s only my fault.

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13 thoughts on “Man and Superman – National Theatre London

  1. Ah, lovely. It sounds very Shavian, with the quips about Englishmen’s discomfort and the jabs at the stifling, unbearable conventions of society–such as marriage!
    It is true that the English cannot resist a pun. I believe they are the most pun-loving nation on earth. Americans tend to think that puns are bad jokes (though I enjoy them immensely).
    Also, the staging you describe is amazing. I love the idea of Mr. Fiennes driving his sportscar 🙂 And the elevator of Heaven.

    1. When the elevator touched the floor and the bell rung the house almost went down! 🙂 I’m sorry for my non-analysis of the play, so many things could be said about it, or Anne Whitefield character. The staging was incredible; we thought that Mr. Fiennes would at the utmost start the car whe he actually drove it we were all in awe! The back panel was also illuminated and worked also as animated screen. When the action is set in the open we could see the blue sky and the clouds and, when the devil talks about humankind’s mischiefs we could see inferno’s mist transforming into a mushroom cloud.

      1. Sounds amazing! But it also sounds like a difficult play to analyze, with perhaps some elements that are anachronistic, such as his political satire.

      2. In its ocean of words the political satire has a minor role, but anyway it’s still actual… Four left wingers disagreeing on everything is the picture of their actual Italian counterparts! 🙂
        It’s more anachronistic the discussion about the guardianship of a grown-up woman or the scandal for Anne’s relatives that her sister is pregnant without being married (nevertheless, she IS married, but in secret).

      3. LOL–it sounds more relevant to Europe where you still have lots of left wingers 🙂 They are an endangered species here.
        I wonder what Shaw would think if he saw how pregnancy without marriage is almost the norm these days… I am glad that the stigma is gone, but economically speaking it is not very good for families.

    1. Thank you for your comment and the link to your blog. I read about the screening, you surely have appreciated more details than myself. I already knew that Ralph Fiennes was great, I had no idea about Tim McMullan, and I was very gladly surprised!

  2. ah thanks! i laughed all over again, Mendoza was a hoot, as were their left wing shenanigans in the hills as well. The Louisa poem was .. special indeed 🙂
    And the whole philosophical debate in hell was perfect between serious and hilarious 🙂

    And i still can’t believe with how much aplomb he delivered all those lines… It is probably even slightly more than Hamlet has to deliver, and that is a lot already 🙂
    And it is amazing how many of those debates and ideas and puns are still valid today 😉

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