Stage Door Review

Man and Superman

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

✭✭

by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Kimberley Rampersad

Shaw Festival, Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

August 24-October 5, 2019

The Statue: “Whew! How he does talk! They'll never stand it in heaven”

Anyone who puts in the six-and-a half hours necessary to see the Shaw Festival’s new production of Shaw’s great comedy Man and Superman will wonder whether any other theatre company could have staged this play as well. Even when the National Theatre in London mounted the play with Ralph Fiennes in 2015, it was cut to just three and a half hours. Here, anchored by a fiery performance by Gray Powell, one of the Festival’s many actors steeped in Shaw’s style, this grand subversive comedy becomes a panoply of verbal fireworks and wit. Fans of Shaw and of 20th-century drama will not want to miss the chance the to see Man and Superman staged complete with the famous but often excised Don Juan in Hell scene.

Shaw’s play about exploding conventions is itself build on the notion of exploding conventions from its content and structure to the very nature of central character Jack Tanner’s remarks. The play is built by combining two clichés of 19th-century drama. The main plot is a love triangle involving the heiress Ann Whitefield (Sara Topham); Octavius (Kyle Blair), the man who has loved her since childhood; and Jack Tanner (Gray Powell), a self-professed revolutionist, whom Ann has loved since childhood. The subplot is the old ruined woman story with Octavius’ sister Violet (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster) as the woman who is pregnant and won’t reveal the father’s name and Hector Malone, Jr. (Jeff Irving) as the father who has married Violet without the blessing of his father Hector Malone, Sr. (Tom McCamus), an American billionaire. 

Shaw explodes the clichés in both plots by having neither run its traditional course. The main plot does not involve two men in love with the same woman but rather a man (Octavius), who loves a woman (Ann), who loves a different man (Jack) who loves nobody and vows never to marry. In the subplot the the notion of Violet as the ruined woman fades quickly once she decides to let everyone know that she’s married. The question only remains to discover who her husband is.

Shaw's subtitle for the play is “A Comedy and a Philosophy”. Acts 1, 2 and 4 of Man and Superman form a tidy comedy of manners where anarchist Jack Tanner is finally conquered by the pragmatist Ann Whitefield. Yet, that comedy has deeper implications that Shaw wished to expound and so he explodes the form of the three-act comedy, familiar from Oscar Wilde, by inserting as Act 3 a two-hour-long dream sequence (Don Juan in Hell) in which Tanner imagines himself in Hell with the Devil (Martha Burns) and others as characters from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni (1787). Shaw has already hinted at this parallel through his use of names. Jack Tanner becomes Don Juan Tenorio (Don Giovanni’s name in Spanish), Ann becomes Doña Ana, Roebuck Ramsden (David Adams), one of Ann’s co-guardians becomes the Statue (i.e. Doña Ana’s father, the Commendatore) and Octavius refers to Donna Ana’s fiancé Don Ottavio.

The Don Juan in Hell scene is often omitted from Man and Superman because of its length and is sometimes performed as a separate play. Indeed, the first play performed at the Shaw Festival in 1962 was Don Juan in Hell. While other theatre companies, like Britain’s National Theatre, may shy away from producing Man and Superman with the entire Don Juan in Hell scene, the Shaw Festival has not. It has the record unique in the world for producing the full four-act Man and Superman on three previous occasions – in 1977, 1989 and 2004. This is why it is very odd for the Festival to advertise this production as a “once-in-a-lifetime theatrical event” when there are, in fact people who have already seen the four-act version at the Festival three times. 

Yet, even though Shaw creates this elaborate analogy, his point in doing so, as with everything else, is to turn it on its head. As we discover Tanner as Don Juan identifies womankind with the Life Force. Shaw even has him quote the ending to Goethe’s Faust, Part II (“Das Ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan!” – “The Eternal Feminine draws us onward!”) as precedent and evidence for his thinking. Ann, as Doña Ana, is the embodiment of this Life Force. In Shaw’s topsy-turvy view of the Don Juan legend, Don Juan was never interested in women. It was women who were, like Doña Ana, pursuing him. 

The correlative to this is the notion, radical even today, that men are necessary for only one thing, procreation, but are otherwise useless. Women seek men because women are the ones who bring forth and nurture life. Men, in pale imitation, dominate women by pretending that they are the ones who create, but nothing men have created is worth so much as a human life. 

In a further reversal, in the afterlife Shaw depicts Hell as the far more pleasant of the two destinations of the soul. Heaven is boring. All the really interesting people are in Hell. The Statue, in fact, has become bored with Heaven and is seeking to immigrate to Hell. Don Juan, however, finding Hell far too much like Earth, is seeking to emigrate to Heaven. Contrary to received wisdom, in Shaw’s view of the afterlife shifting from place to place is fully permitted.

Throughout the play Shaw evokes a concept only to reverse it or take it apart. Thus, contrary to his reputation, especially in Britain, for being old-fashioned, Shaw in 1905 is already engaged in what would later be called “deconstruction”. The play has deconstructed genres, myth and typical characters. Most radically, it also deconstructs its own style. 

The role of Jack Tanner is generally considered the longest role in English-language drama. Tanner’s speeches are known for their great length. They are also known for their great length within the play. On a regular basis Shaw has characters comment on how self-regarding and long-winded Tanner is. Ann tells him, “You didn't want to talk about me, Jack. You wanted to talk about yourself”. His chauffeur Straker says, “I wish I had a car that would go as fast as you can talk, Mr Tanner”. The Statue comments about Tanner as Don Juan, “Whew! How he does talk! They'll never stand it in heaven”. 

Talking, in fact, eventually becomes the very subject of the play. Since Shaw has others notice Tanner’s lengthy speeches we have to wonder why Shaw does this. One reason is that Shaw is demonstrating exactly what Don Juan claims men do — assert dominance over a world that women privately control. After one of Tanner’s especially involved arguments, Ann dismisses all he has just said with the backhand compliment, “You talk so well”, to which Tanner replies, “Talk! Talk! It means nothing to you but talk”, which is true. If it were not clear during play it is clear at the end when Ann’s line to Tanner is, “Go on talking”. Since she has won him over in her own way, his habit of babbling away no longer matters.

In fact, Shaw even asks us to experience Tanner’s speeches in a different way from ordinary speeches in a play. Given the play’s references to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Shaw encourages us to view Tanner’s perorations as types of rhetorical arias. This idea hit home the afternoon I saw the show when Gray Powell had delivered Don Juan’s speech to the Devil beginning, “Pooh! why should I be civil to them or to you?” The speech concluded with a virtuoso series of 27 parallel antitheses. Admiration for Powell’s performance which had been palpably growing finally burst out into wild applause that stopped the show. This was the same kind of applause that opera-goers give a singer who has just wowed them with a great aria.

The success of the present Man and Superman rests entirely with the actors themselves rather than with the director. Kimberley Rampersad has directed only one previous play by Shaw at the Festival and that was the lunch-time show O’Flaherty V.C. last year. It is bizarre to say the least that the Festival should entrust so inexperienced a director with such a mammoth play which it advertises as a “once-in-a-lifetime theatrical event”. Why not let one of the many other experienced directors of Shaw in Canada tackle this play?

As it is Rampersad’s direction amounts mostly to moving people about whether it makes sense or not. In the long debates of Don Juan in Hell, where some movement would do good, she just lets the actors stay were they are for long periods of time. She begins the play with the terrible idea of having Octavius and Ramsden sing their lines as if in recitative which makes one fear she will have the whole work sung instead of spoken. Fortunately, she quickly abandons this idea and never takes it up again.

In Don Juan in Hell, Shaw specifies that an Old Lady should enter to speak to Don Juan. The lady is later transformed into Doña Ana. In 2004, Jennifer Phipps played the Old Lady and transformed into Fiona Byrne. Here, Rampersad has Sara Topham enter as the Old Lady and simply not look at Don Juan until she throws off her hood and mantle and reveals herself as Doña Ana. This ploy doesn’t work because it makes us wonder for far too long why Doña Ana is acting in such a peculiar fashion.

Rampersad has shown no special insight into the play in her Director’s Notes except that it is “long”, thus confirming the feeling that the actors have primarily had to rely on their own devices to play their parts. Luckily for everyone, Rampersad has been given a stellar cast who have their own insights and a ready stock of devices to hand.

Prime among these is Gray Powell as Jack Tanner/Don Juan in what must be his greatest ever performance. Now in his 13th season at the Festival, Powell has mastered the difficulty of Shaw’s compound complex sentences. In 2004 Ben Carlson, in another great performance, played Tanner as if he were a man so brimming with his own ideas that he spoke at length so no one else would break into his refuge of words. Powell gives this approach a twist. While Carlson spoke as if Tanner’s ideas were all fully formed, Powell speaks his lines as if he were just formulating them at that moment. This gives Powell’s Tanner an immediate vitality and makes us more intent on followings the byways of his thoughts. 

At the same time Powell lends Tanner the air of a poseur who speaks at such length lest someone should see through his façade. Indeed, Tanner can theorize all he likes about how Ann is a representative of the Life Force, but we know it is Ann’s own doing that wins Tanner for herself.

Sara Topham, who made such a multifaceted Saint Joan at the Shaw in 2017, makes Ann Whitefield/Doña Ana a much more complex character than usual. She shows us how Ann has her own pride and would reject the ardent but sentimental love of Octavius for the more difficult prize of Tanner. When she doesn’t speak Topham shows us Ann assessing Tanner and calculating how she will go about her conquest of him. She shows Ann choosing just the right moment to carry out a step-by-step plan to win over a confirmed bachelor and how to negate Tanner’s role as her co-guardian with Ramsden to lead him to marriage. Topham’s is an intelligent, perfectly judged performance that is a thorough delight.

Kyle Blair, in a non-singing-and-dancing role, proves what a fine actor he is by making us sympathize with Octavius’ hopeless love for Ann while making us recognize that his sentimental view of love is not suitable to Ann, who wants love to come with a struggle.

Shaw’s secondary couple of Violet and Hector Jr. is well played by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster and Jeff Irving, also proving his fine acting ability in a non-song-and-dance role. Shaw conceives of them as a comically more superficial version of Ann and Tanner. Whereas Ann wants to posses Tanner’s soul, Violet wants Hector’s money. Whereas Tanner defies all humankind, Hector merely defies his father. Yet both make these lesser goals seem as important to their characters as the larger goals are to Ann and Tanner. Lancaster is very funny in demonstrating how boldly Violet can manipulate any man, including Hector’s father, to get what she wants. Irving is as earnest and upright as anyone would wish a young American of 1905 to be. 

Martha Burns, a memorable Major Barbara at the Festival in 1987, is cast in the traditionally male role of the bandit Mendoza and the Devil. As Mendoza she is hampered by a heavy and unnecessary Spanish accent. As the Devil she radiates malign poise, but somehow does not counter Don Juan’s arguments with the same force that Gray Powell musters in his role. The Devil’s point, that mankind is driven not by a Life Force, but a Death Force, ought to have more impact since its pessimism corresponds so well with the current world mood today. 

In other roles, David Adams is very funny as the uptight conservative Roebuck Ramsden, who has to share the guardianship of Ann with the rebel Tanner. It is wonderful to see Sharry Flett on stage again, this time as Ann's mother who doesn’t mince words when it comes to assessing Ann’s character. Sanjay Talwar is Tanner’s comic chauffeur Henry Straker, who following Shaw’s proclivity for inversions, is more the master of Tanner than Tanner is his master. And Tom McCamus as Hector Malone, Sr., presents us with a richly satirical portrait of an American tycoon who, lacking ancestry and history, has gone to England to buy them. 

The design for Man and Superman by Camellia Koo is not so striking as was Peter Hartwell’s in 2004 but is well-conceived. All four acts are set within the walls of a floor-to-ceiling library, a reference perhaps to the play’s many allusions to other works. Two walls of the library tilt upwards under red lighting from Kevin Lamotte to indicate Hell. In Act 4, Koo shows us only one wall of the library, but this time an aged tree has been growing up through its book-filed shelves. Likely this is a clever reference by Koo to the triumph of the Life Force over all the intellectual achievements of mankind.

Seeing Man and Superman with Don Juan in Hell may not be a one-in-a-lifetime experience and should not be considered a “Special Event” at the Shaw Festival where it is one of its namesake’s masterpieces. Yet, the last time the Shaw did the full play was 15 years ago. Even if you saw Neil Munro’s great production then, you will want to see the Shaw’s new production now because this is a work whose incredible richness and playfulness cannot be fully appreciated after only one viewing. Gray Powell and Sara Topham prove that there is more than one way to play great roles like Jack Tanner and Ann Whitefield and no lover of Shaw should miss these performances or indeed the performances of this entire superlative cast. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photo: Sara Topham as Ann Whitefield and Gray Powell as Jack Tanner; Gray Powell as Jack Tanner, David Adams as Roebuck Ramsden, Tanja Jacobs as Susan Ramsden, Kyle Blair as Octavius Robinson and Sara Topham as Ann Whitefield; Sara Topham as Ann Whitefield and Gray Powell as Jack Tanner; Gray Powell as Don Juan and Sara Topham as Doña Ana; Martha Burns as the Devil. © 2019 Emily Cooper.

For tickets, visit www.shawfest.com.