Saturday, March 21, 2015

MAN AND SUPERMAN / CLOSER: Love Is A Battlefield

It's odd how sometimes you can see two productions back-to-back and find particular themes that link them across the years - who would have thought that of George Bernard Shaw and Patrick Marber?

I booked to see MAN AND SUPERMAN because we recently saw Shaw's first success WIDOWERS HOUSES at the Orange Tree Theatre and also because I do like a theatrical challenge - the production runs for over 3 and a half hours!  It also gave us the chance to see Ralph Fiennes in the stonking lead role of Jack Tanner, a radical (and of course wealthy) writer who finds himself in the sights of the emancipated Ann Whitefield.

Tanner has no desire to be yoked to a woman in marriage - and believes fervently that a woman shouldn't want that either.  But he finds himself possibly ensnared when Ann's father dies and his will reveals that Ann's guardians are to be Tanner and her father's conventional older friend Roebuck Ramsden. 

Ann is being pursued by the lovesick Octavius whose sister Violet has caused outrage by announcing she is pregnant.  Violet, like Ann, is a young woman who is direct in her dealings with men and unbowed by her condition.  Tanner stands up for her right to give birth as it is woman's highest power but Violet dumbfounds them all by revealing that she is in fact married but refuses to tell them who it is!

Tanner challenges Ann to prove her independence by driving with him around Europe but is panicked when she accepts!  Octavius appears with his American friend Hector (who is Violet's secret husband) and Tanner is again floored when his plain-speaking cockney chauffeur 'Enry lets him in on something he hadn't realised - Ann is actually after Tanner.

Tanner flees to Europe to escape the pursuing Ann but driving through the Spanish Sierras he and 'Enry are captured by mountain-dwelling brigands.  Their leader Mendoza, however, is a poetic ex-Savoy hotel waiter and became an outcast when the woman he loved rejected him.  Well wouldn't you know?  It turns out that his beloved was none other than 'Enry's sister!  They settle down to sleep and Tanner, spun around by all these love affairs, dreams of being Don Juan in Hell.

The ensuing scene is the reason that MAN AND SUPERMAN has a wobbly history as it sometimes performed without this archetypal GBS scene as Don Juan debates with the Devil about man's inhumanity to man and the joys of Hell over the bland dreariness of Heaven.  I had been surprised how enjoyable the play had been up until then but this long scene of solid Shavian talk soon had me drifting off to watch the subtle, ever-changing video screen on Christopher Oram's set.

Eventually we return to the plot when Tanner and 'Enery are 'rescued' from the brigands by his pursuing friends but Tanner 'saves' Mendoza and his cohorts by telling the police that they were acting as his guides.  All the threads of the character's storylines are tied up in an Andalusian garden and Jack, finally worn down by the slyly predatory Ann, capitulates to married life although stating it will be on his terms.  Dream on Jack!

Ralph Fiennes gave a hugely enjoyable performance - made even more funny because he seemed to be channelling Leonard Rossiter as Rigsby in RISING DAMP which makes perfect sense for the role!  It's the best I have seen him on stage and makes one realise how much he is missed there.

Fiennes' excellence is sadly not matched by Idira Varma as Ann.  She certainly had the character's intelligence but lacked that quintessential quicksilver spark to make her Ann interesting.  Faye Castelow's spirited Violet showed all the individuality and tartness that Varma lacked.

There were fine supporting performances from Nicholas Le Prevost as the disapproving Roebuck Ramsden, Ferdinand Kingsley as lovelorn Octavius and Elliot Barnes-Worrell as the cocky cockney 'Enry Straker.  Tim McMullan is not an actor I usually like but here his fruitiness suited the heartbroken brigand Mendoza and the lushly urbane Devil.

Simon Godwin also directed the 3 and a half hour STRANGE INTERLUDE at the Lyttelton and it shared MAN AND SUPERMAN's speed of pace but although enjoyable, it ultimately felt that was down to the performances and not what Godwin had actually contributed.  Christopher Oram's arresting design of traditional sets against a video wall was handy to look at when Shaw's dialogue overwhelmed one.

With Jack Tanner's futile attempts to keep love at arm's length still fresh in my mind, it was interesting to then see the revival of Patrick Marber's CLOSER at the Donmar.

Marber's savage drama/comedy features two men - Dan a writer, Larry a doctor - and two women - Anna a photographer, Alice a sometime exotic dancer - who are all desperate for love but who are also desperately bad at staying in love.

I saw the original National Theatre production in 1997 (and the 2004 film version) so was curious to see how well it stood up 18 years later.  It was with some relief that I found still a fascinating, tantalising, brilliantly cruel play about the way you can hurt the ones you feel are closest to you.

Perfectly suited to the intimacy of the Donmar, you hung on the four characters every words, almost flinching at the emotional brutality inflicted.  It is definitely a play written by a man as Larry and Dan tend to get the bravura lines and the showier business - in particular the scene where they encounter each other in an Internet chat room and Dan toys with Larry while pretending to be Anna.

The women are more problematical; the roles feel somewhat lightweight compared to the men and, in particular, the character of Alice maddeningly feels like the young Marber's wank fantasy stuck in a naturalistic setting.  Alice is unknowable, an enigma to be solved by her lovers, but also a tantalising creature of habit, but also an innocent nymphet - it's like Marber is working through his own version of Wedekind's LULU.  The only resolution he can find for her is to have her die - a very Victorian end for such a modern girl - and in the play's coup de grace it is revealed that even her name wasn't real.  She is less a character, more a collection of pin-up girls.

As such I felt Rachel Redford was the weakest member of the cast as she didn't have the personality to distract from the character's flimsiness but I liked Oliver Chris as Dan, the personable young writer whose charming demeanour covers a shallow user of people.

The two more interesting characters were wonderfully played by Rufus Sewell as Larry and Nancy Carroll as Anna.  Sewell was a revelation, burning up the stage with a kinetic energy, emotions flickering across his face within seconds of each other while his eruptions of spiteful, lethal anger were great to watch.  Nancy Carroll brought her remarkable quality of attentive stillness to Anna, a woman who seems to be forever anticipating the next inevitable disappointment.  She proved again how exceptional an actress she is.

David Leveaux's direction caught every nuance of Marber's deftly-woven script, balancing the humour and the drama to great effect.  Bunny Christie's ingenious set had a cool East London, minimalist vibe hugely helped by Hugh Vanstone's lighting.

Two excellent revivals showing the possibility and impossibility of love.

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