It is a truth universally acknowledged that George Bernard Shaw was a bit of a windbag. At no point did the words “Less is more”, or “Show don’t tell” impinge on his exuberant, contrarian torrents of prose, famously difficult for actors to learn and deliver at a speed necessary to get everyone home before dawn. Of his joyfully verbose oeuvre no play beats the sheer size of this five-act marathon, even though sometimes it is played without the prolonged dream-sequence. In which the main protagonist, during a restless night on a bare mountain with brigands, turns into Don Juan in hell and argues with Lucifer about everything, including the life-force which drives men towards enslavement by women and the mystery of unique self-aware consciousness in the human animal (yes indeed: GBS was fretting about The Hard Problem a full century before Tom Stoppard’s adventure in neuroscience, running in the Dorfman next door).

Fortunately, it is also true that the National Theatre has the capability to throw at this huge, sprawling, talky-talk play everything it needs to make a night of it. Not only the peerless and apparently indefatigable Ralph Fiennes as Tanner, the revolutionary anarchist intellectual perma-talker and reluctant guardian of Ann (a sparky, spiky Indira Varna) who is determined to marry him. We also get a nice Desert Island Discs joke to start with, and a glorious design by Christopher Oram, with library, carriage-yard, functioning car, craggy mountain and Spanish bower garden all framed in misty panes, behind which play vague cloudy symbols of whatever it’s all about at any particular moment. They also make a nicely blank scene in Hell for the Don-Juan interlude, though in preview it is rumoured that Satan’s cocktail-shaker table came up through the trapdoor with a bit of a crash. No probs on press night.

Director Simon Godwin also cannily gives us modern dress and a few verbal updates, and accords free, not to say licentious, comic rein to Tim McMullan as the depressed lovesick mountain brigand chief and a hyper-cool Satan in skinny jeans. McMullan is hilarious in both roles, making the most of Shaw’s ferocious playfulness to the point when – as he reminisces in a heavy Spanish accent about being a Jewish waiter at the Savoy and tearfully reads out his poetry – you start to reflect that Monty Python’s Flying Circus was not really doing anything that hadn’t been done in 1905.

Not that we’re supposed to be reflecting on any such thing, but on the multiple philosophical-biological-mystical-socialist points which Shaw is machine-gunning us with via the astonishing Fiennes, with dashes of Nietzsche, streaks of idealism, gobbets of cynicism, grumpy political paradox and some bafflingly upside-down feminism laced with memories of Much Ado as our Beatrice and Benedick finally – after three and a half rattling hours – fall into one another’s arms, cursing.

There you are. Brilliantly done, keeping us entertained against (frankly) considerable odds. Fiennes is a marvel. So is McMullan, and Nicholas le Prevost as Ramsden . I leave you though, in this election season, with a nice line from Lucifer. “Englishmen will never be slaves. They are free to do everything that the Government and Public Opinion allow them to”.

From a somewhat rowdy post-football 2339 train towards Manningtree, good night.

Box Office 020 7452 3000 in rep to 17 May . Pretty sold out BUT –
NT LIVE in cinemas nationwide on 14 May

Rating Four 4 Meece Rating


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