It is brave of the National to stage a full version of George Bernard Shaw’s epic comedy prior to the impending introduction of all night tubes. Even when the play premiered in 1905, the middle section, known as Don Juan in Hell, was omitted, as it has been many times since, but Simon Godwin’s glorious revival includes it and poses the question as to how it could ever be cut. Coming in at exactly three and a half hours, the performance is some ten minutes shorter than word from early previews suggested and this seems to have been achieved by speeding up delivery of lines; as a result, we are often denied the time to savour the constant flow of Shavian wit, but the compensation is a production which is zestful and bubbling almost throughout and how amazing it is to hear a 21st Century audience frequently laughing out loud at Shaw. The central character, John Tanner, is modelled on Don Juan, whom he becomes in the middle section; He is super rich, with anarchist and socialist leanings and a confirmed bachelor with profound misgivings about womankind. Upon the death of a friend, he is appointed a guardian to Ann Whitefield, a young woman in whom he meets his match. Tanner becomes the mouthpiece for all Shaw’s irreverent, non-conformist ideas on English society, expounding on sexual and social politics, hypocrisy, tradition and religion. Shaw’s Irish perspective is similar to that of Oscar Wilde, but his satire is much more ferocious and wide-ranging. This play begins and ends like a lightweight Wilde comedy, with elements of a gender-reversed Taming of the Shrew thrown in. Ralph Fiennes is a marvellous Tanner; this actor’s earlier screen parts and his stage appearances in classical roles gave him an image of stiffness and gravitas which would not have suited Tanner at all, but film triumphs in In Bruges and The Grand Budapest Hotel have shown him to possess the skills of a consummate performer of comedy, skills which are evident throughout this production. He could be several years older than Shaw intended, but it matters little, nor do other details of dates and times in Godwin’s version. The director seems to realise that so much in this sprawling play – its absurd length, its self-indulgent diversions – breaks the rules of theatre and he opts for more of the same. The plot and much of the writing has an Edwardian flavour, but the characters wear modern dress, receive text messages and drive around in a gleaming sports car (seen on stage in its full glory), getting from Park Lane to Richmond in under 10 minutes, something that surely would not have been contemplated at any time later than 1905. Fiennes is matched by Indira Varma as Ann, steely and cunning yet so charming that it is no surprise when Tanner speeds off to the French Riviera to escape her clutches. He ends up in the Sierra Nevada (faulty sat-nav?), kidnapped by brigands led by the worldly Mendoza (Tim McMullan), a former waiter at the Savoy. Now comes the Don Juan section, staged as a surreal dream sequence on a brightly-lit, near bare stage; Don Juan and the Devil (McMullan again, now with a deep, silky voice and slouching posture) exchange philosophies about life and afterlife, brutally lampooning the influence of religion on the structure of society. If this is too amusing to ever be excised justly, the same cannot be said for the beginning of the final Act where Shaw dwells for too long on a superfluous sub-plot involving an American father and son; by attacking the American obsession with wealth, he is opening fire on one front too many and Godwin’s production also slows up at this point. This could be because it is the only time when both Fiennes and Varma are absent from the stage for a long spell and their return for Tanner’s inevitable capitulation brings sheer joy, tempered only by slight disappointment that Shaw is himself capitulating to the conventions of romantic comedy. Christopher Oran’s dazzling set designs add to the rich mix as do top-notch supporting performances from Nicholas Le Provost, Elliot Barnes-Worrell and others. Divine comedy indeed.
Performance date: 24 February 2014