My goodness, this is a wordy play. Hardly a surprise with George Bernard Shaw, but Shaw himself cut the third act almost entirely when he directed its 1905 premiere. However, director Simon Godwin disdains such tactics which would take this revival’s running time under three hours. There comes a point when one stops admiring Shaw’s intellect and argumentation, and Ralph Fiennes’ central performance, and wishes GBS would just edit himself a bit.
For me, this point came during that third act, an almost entirely non sequitur dream sequence: why would a classically straightforward narrative about a couple of thwarted and ultimately resolved love matches yield an episode known (and sometimes separately staged) as Don Juan in Hell? Aphorism after untrimmed aphorism, aperçu after metaphysical aperçu pour out to no dramatic end other than the playwright simply getting these observations off his chest.
Shaw, of course, being Shaw, reverses all the classical romcom conventions, so that Fiennes’ Jack Tanner is the one pursued by Indira Varma’s Ann, the master Tanner is in thrall to the knowledge of his chauffeur (and not just his mechanical knowledge: at one point he corrects a French literary reference) and so forth. Apart from Fiennes, the standout actors are Faye Castelow, who has to wait until the final act to show her mettle as half of the ingénue romantic couple, and Tim McMullan, who sloughs off his usual onstage languor to swashbuckle as a Spanish brigand and the Devil.
McMullan could teach Fiennes a thing or two about rollicking. His attempts at the dynamism and mould-breaking of the Tanner character don’t always come off. At times he stands, one leg slightly forward, leaning slightly back, intending to look raffish but merely seeming as if he is modelling his conspicuously unworn-in jeans. The vigour of Shaw’s dialogue itself is never enough to carry characterisation through. Similarly, Godwin’s decision to stage the play in modern dress (with occasional updates so that at one point Tanner receives a text instead of a note) does not make it either sound or feel contemporary. Still, you always get a lot of Shaw for your money.
To May 17, nationaltheatre.org.uk