You have to feel a certain sympathy for George Bernard Shaw’s flawed anti-hero John Tanner in Man & Superman.
He goes through life doing his utmost not to ensnared by a woman. Love, marriage and involvement is Tanner’s idea of hell, or purgatory at least.
Ralph Fiennes goes to hell and back as the vain, immoral, shameless misogynist, in Simon Godwin’s stupendous production which opened at the National Theatre this week.
Shaw’s bloated comedy wouldn’t be everyone’s idea of a fun night out. In its original form it runs to more than five hours but, thankfully, Godwin has cut it down to a more manageable three-and-half without sacrificing key scenes.
Fiennes gives the performance of his career though, it seems, that every role the 52-year-old actor takes endorses his versatility, range, and talent.
From the outset he’s a man doomed and it’s portrayed in every hunch of his back and hangdog expression. John Tanner is a man without hope.
It is easy to find yourself sitting drop-jawed as Tanner expostulates and philosophises on life and, more importantly, the dangers of allowing oneself to fall in love.
The sheer volume of words Fiennes has had to learn is staggering. Each sentence is an entire book, flawlessly rattled out at speed. I found myself wondering if he’d make it to the end of a speech without passing out through lack of breath.
And, if you can keep up, there are so many quotable lines. Shaw almost outdoes Oscar Wilde.
But there’s the rub. While I found myself hanging on every word there were some in the audience who found it too much to bear. A number of stalls’ seats fell empty after the interval following the desertion of less hardy patrons.
It’s very much a Marmite play. Some will be entranced by the verbal assault while others will find it full of wind, overlong, and tedious.
Halfway through his friend, Roebuck Ramsden (the splendid and ever reliable Nicholas Le Prevost who has cornered the market in spluttering old buffer types) declares: “Your flow of words is simply amazing. You are extremely fond of hearing yourself talk”. It brings the house down.
Tanner, the inveterate bachelor, and Ramsden, have been appointed joint guardians of the scheming, though seemingly innocent, Ann Whitefield in this modern interpretation of the story.
Neither man are excited by the idea, least of all Tanner who wants out of the arrangement.
He frequently describes men being ensnared by women, caught in their spiders’ webs, wrapping tentacles around a man and squeezing out their lifeblood. He has serious issues with the female sex.
And, in this, he’s right. Through devious means, he is hooked. Fiennes’ crushed expression, when he admits defeat, is a treat. The audience (well, more accurately, the women in the audience) were noisily sympathetic to his plight while the menfolk nodded with empathy (they’ve been there and got their own crosses to bear).
The action moves from an English opener to Europe where Tanner and his driver Henry (Elliot Barnes-Worrell) are captured by brigands led by a former Savoy Hotel waiter called Mendoza.
Mr Fiennes almost takes a back seat when Tim McMullan grandstands as the unlucky-in-love Mendoza and, later, as the greasy, medallion wearing Devil.
It turns out he had fled London and fell on hard times after a failed relationship with Henry’s sister (a dramatic coincidence of the colossal kind!).
Night-time brings another change of pace with an infamous dream sequence, frequently omitted from some productions, but imaginatively restored by Goodwin.
Luke Halls’ video projections bring atmosphere to the stark backcloth of the vast Lyttelton stage as Tanner, now playing his own nemesis and descendant, the great lover Don Juan, is stuck and bored out of his mind in Hell.
McMullan’s return as the louche, cocktail-drinking, Devil, his oiled hair slicked back and designer beard complementing a peacock’s wardrobe, is memorable.
And he leaves us in no doubt that it would be heaven to stay in Hell while Heaven is nothing short of purgatory – dull as dishwater and interminably tedious.
Back in reality the net closes on Tanner while Ann’s erstwhile young lover Octavius (Ferdinand Kingsley) is given short shrift.
Indira Varma gives a beautifully judged performance as Ann. You’d think butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth when she appears deferent to her elders, but she’s more than a simpering Edwardian-style filly. This is a single-minded and driven tarantula with her web cast from the outset for just one man.
Brilliantly engaging turns from the entire cast but, ultimately, the stage belongs to Superman Fiennes with McMullan giving a devil of a performance.
Man & Superman plays until May 17 but the entire run is sold out. It will be screened, as part of NT Live, into theatres and cinemas, on May 14.