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REVIEW: NT LIVE PRESENTS MAN AND SUPERMAN (UK, 2015)



Man and Super Man, distributed by the National Theatre, is spectacular epic with torrential dialogue and entertaining albeit reverential musings on the human condition. Written in 1903 by Bernard Shawand then subsequently deemed “unstageable”, this seemingly untameable three hour epic has been breathed to life with the patient, clever and guiding adaptation of Sam Godwin. However the literal “breath” of this play comes from the explosive performance of Ralph Fiennes in his portrayal of Jack Tanner, a provocative, stubborn bachelor, who against his will has been been named joint Guardian of Ann, a manipulative charmer, played by the wonderful Indira Varma.

Narratively, Man and Superman follows the choices and decisions of Jack Tanner as he attempts to out think and reject society’s expectations for him regarding marriage and settling down. Defying society’s expectation is the driving force of Jack as he butts heads with conservatism and refuses to acknowledge that, although everyone can see it, he is the natural partner to Ann. He yearns for a greater meaning beyond life as we know it, and longs to be devoid of primeval temptations such as hunger, arousal, warmth and comfort. He names these ailments the “life force” and blames it for yo-yoing him back to mortal temptation (through the form of Ann), when he so much wants to experience pure truth beyond such “human” limitations. His character is a subversion of the notorious womaniser, Don Juan, as Jack protests that he is but a victim of a woman’s power and refuses to be named as a slave post-marriage. This subversion is most obvious in an incredible dream scene where Jack actually embodies the character of Don Juan and muses with The Devil (the captivating Tim McMullan) on the predicament of the human position regarding Heaven and Hell.

And so the play begins to take a Shakespearian turn, referencing the poor philosopher Jaques from As You Like It who reminisces about the purpose of human beings in this “stage of a world”. As well as this, the love/ hate relationship of Beatrice and Benedict from Much Ado About Nothing can also be seen in both Ann and Jack; their fiery banter and refusal of each other creates a sexual tension on screen that has the audience writhing at their obvious suitability. We are torn between Jack’s desire for freedom and the chemistry that is exuded through his interaction with Ann.

In this way, Man and Superman takes you on an impressive rhetorical and relatable journey. Godwin sees the underlying story of the play as an individual’s struggle to love, and explores the push and pull between the ultimate sacrifice of the individual to share and entrust one’s self to another. If universal truths aren’t reason enough to see this spectacle, go just to see Fiennes. His performance is like no other. The sheer voluminous quantity of the dialogue he masters and sings with the song of persuasive enamour rings true with the audience. His views of love, life and the human condition also strike a common chord with a modern audience, however idealistic and unreachable. He is addictive and makes 3 hours pass like no time at all. But in saying that, by far the most impressive aspect of this play is that it is over one hundred years old. Shaw’s musings about the cyclical nature of time and the universal and repetitive nature of its effervescence is made more pronounced when you realise that you too have asked the same questions as Jack, cried the same tears that he has wept and succumbed to “the life force” just as he has and will do so for the next 100 years.

Review Score: FOUR OUT OF FIVE STARS