When can big ideas seem funny?
A revival tackles the challenge of Shaw’s “Man and Superman”
They sit there, tall and stark white, pointing us to the soul of the play. They’re columns on the set of Man and Superman, framing the back wall of an elegant sitting room and suggesting the proper British order that so many characters are trying to maintain.
But when you look closer, you notice there’s wildness in the room. Near the ceiling, the columns explode into branches and leaves, reaching with their white-plaster foliage above everyone’s heads.
So what happened? Did the trees harden into columns, or did something natural burst from the architecture? In the battle between impulse and order, who’s winning?
Along with the set, that question torments George Bernard Shaw’s spirited play from 1903. Superficially, it seems like a comedy of manners about a rebellious bachelor named Jack Tanner who’s wooed by his feisty ward, Ann Whitefield. But as he flees her pursuits—and society clucks about his inappropriate behavior—Man and Superman tackles bigger themes about the spirit, the mind, and the hypocrisy that lets people ignore both.
As they banter, characters deliver speeches that demand both laughter and contemplation. In the third act alone, there’s a dream sequence where Jack, who’s trying to suppress his lusty impulses, imagines he’s Don Juan, the famous lover, living in hell and debating ethics with the Devil. That scene has more irony and intelligence than most nights of theatre.
But no audience wants to be lectured. If a production can’t make Shaw’s ideas playable, then it doesn’t matter how smart they are.
That’s the challenge for the current revival at Irish Repertory Theatre, in a co-production with Gingold Theatrical Group. The team wants to honor Shaw’s art as well as his philosophy.
Which brings us to those columns. They turn large themes into concrete images. “This is why I had come up with the idea of a very formal Edwardian ballroom in which the whole concept of social structure is at its most defiant against nature,” says director David Staller, who’s also Gingold’s artistic director. “[That period implies] containing nature, withholding one’s self from one’s natural impulse. And out of the columns of this ballroom are erupting these trees. Nature overcomes man’s attempt to subjugate it. If you let it. It’s always there, and to give in to nature, to open one’s heart, is one of the most terrifying elements of being human.”
Other parts of the design also reflect the play’s ideas. For instance, Shaw mocks our self-delusion when characters insist they understand situations they don’t understand at all. That joke is reflected in the props. “All the wills, all the books are blank,” Staller stays. “It’s the idea of what we choose to impose on the world around us. That we can all read a paragraph, and everyone makes something completely different out of it.”
Meanwhile, the actors have worked to understand every nuance of their complex speeches and deliver them with sharp comic timing. Brian Murray, who plays a crusty scold named Ramsden, has spent decades with Shaw’s characters, and he says they require a special approach: “You can’t work with Shaw from feelings alone, even in the most feeling of the plays. There’s always the mind and irony and all those things at work that you can’t play Shaw without.”
Honoring that often means suppressing old habits. “You can’t make the normal choices that an actor would like to make. You can’t find ‘the inner life,’” says Murray, adding that a character’s “inner life” is almost always spelled out in speeches. “Instead, I try to understand what Shaw is saying and where the laughter’s going to be. It’s as crass as that. Because somehow, I can work backwards and find out what he might really be saying.”
Murray also listens to the audience to see if they’re catching the layers and jokes in Shaw’s lines. “If they get it, you know you’re on the right path,” he says. “If they don’t get it, they’re either utterly stupid—and most audiences aren’t—or you’re doing it so wrong that you have to rethink the whole thing.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor
Photo by James Higgins