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The Shaw Festival is billing their presentation of Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman with Don Juan in Hell as something rare and special.

Handout

  • Title: Man and Superman with Don Juan in Hell
  • Written by: Bernard Shaw
  • Director: Kimberley Rampersad
  • Actors: Gray Powell, Sara Topham, Martha Burns and David Adams
  • Company: The Shaw Festival
  • Venue: Festival Theatre
  • City: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to October 5, 2019

rating

3 out of 4 stars

The marketing of Man and Superman with Don Juan in Hell – starring Gray Powell as Jack Tanner, English-language drama’s most logorrheic lead – as an “epic theatrical event” by the Shaw Festival strikes me as more than a little cheeky.

Here is the only theatrical institution in the world dedicated to the words and spirit of Bernard Shaw, presenting a play written by Shaw in full – and billing it as something rare and special, in a limited run, with the top ticket price hitting $271.20 (or $394.20, if you want a fancy lunch included).

Are we supposed to be impressed by the Niagara-on-the-Lake repertory theatre company actually adhering to its mission?

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Counterpoint: Perhaps we’ve all taken the Shaw Festival for granted, and it needs to reassert both the Shaw and Festival parts of its name for audiences to get excited again – as the audience clearly was at the opening of this 6½ hour show on Saturday.

Written in 1903, Man and Superman is a fairly conventional comedy of manners save for its dream debate sequence (sometimes known as Don Juan in Hell) and its central character of Tanner, an aristocratic anarchist and author of a scandalous book called The Revolutionist’s Handbook, who speaks about 10 times as many lines as he needs to for the plot’s sake.

Sara Topham plays Ann Whitefield and Gray Powell plays John Tanner.

Emily Cooper

In the wake of her father’s death, Ann Whitefield (Sara Topham) has become the joint ward of a conventional older man named Roebuck Ramsden (David Adams, who is ceaselessly delightful) and the young and unconventional Tanner.

The poet Octavius (Kyle Blair) is in love with Ann – and Tanner, though opposed to marriage on principle, supports his friend’s suit.

But, in fact, Ann has her eyes on Tanner – and Tanner, despite himself, feels a pull toward her as well.

There’s additionally a subplot involving Octavius’s sister Violet (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster), who has become pregnant, a scandal that allows Tanner to outline his convoluted ideas about what he calls the “Life Force” – what Shaw fatalistically called nature or instinct – and free love at length.

From left: Martha Burns as Mendoza, Jason Cadieux as The Anarchist and Shauna Thompson as Duval.

EMILY COOPER/Handout

From this side of the 1960s, much of what he says about women and marriage appears at the very least condescending toward women, but for every five ideas he throws against the wall, one sticks. (“We are ashamed of everything that is real about us,” was one that stuck with me in the first act.)

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From the moment Powell takes the stage as Tanner, he does exactly what is needed: He speaks at a quick-enough clip to keep us exhilarated, and he depicts thinking as action, stabbing ideas out of the air with his hands, which thrust and parry like a fencer’s minus the foil.

As the subtext to all of Tanner’s text, Topham’s performance as Ann is equally wonderful. Her silence always seems one step ahead of his words – and, in the lines she does get, she always comes across as the more intelligent of the pair.

Director Kimberley Rampersad’s production, at first, is less assured than the acting. It begins with a cheesy bit of full-cast choreography, then two of the actors singing the first few minutes of dialogue as recitative. There are strange bursts of music and sudden shifts of lights.

These staging flourishes feel tentative, and therefore argue for their own lack of necessity.

But Rampersad does find her way at the moment in the play where early critics believed Shaw lost his.

Gray Powell plays Don Juan and Sara Topham plays Doña Ana in the dream debate sequence Don Juan in Hell.

EMILY COOPER/Handout

In the third act, Man and Superman takes a literal detour, as Tanner and his cockney driver Henry Straker (the jovial Sanjay Talwar), on the run from Ann and the Life Force (and an early conclusion to the play), are waylaid in the Sierra Nevada by a band of social-democrat carjackers led by a former waiter named Mendoza (Martha Burns).

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Then, the play takes its metaphysical detour as Tanner falls asleep, is transformed into Don Juan, and goes to hell. In an extended dialogue that riffs on Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, he meets his former lover Ana (Topham), who has died of old age and is surprised not to be in heaven.

Ana’s father (Adams) appears next and then comes the Devil, a character Burns certainly has the right name for, and who she plays with a wickedly sly smile.

What is this scene and its stew of philosophy about heaven, hell and humanity all about? On one level, it strips away the artifice of the play only to replace it with a new artifice. But Tanner is afraid of his body, constantly fleeing it to his mind – and, only here, in this idea of the underworld where corporeal form does not exist, can we understand that he’s really arguing for a kind of freedom that exists only in death.

Rampersad has the actors speak in a slight daze, mostly not looking at one another – and turns the verbose venture into a fascinating and hypnotic sequence.

Martha Burns plays The Devil in the Don Juan sequence.

EMILY COOPER/Handout

It is, nevertheless, a very long one. Indeed, the play is full of superfluous speech – even accounting for the fact that Tanner’s superfluidity seems meant to demonstrate that no mountain of words is a match for the Life Force. (Designer Camellia Koo’s set is made up entirely of bookshelves, eventually shattered by a tree.)

I think the National Theatre in London had the right idea in 2015 for its production with Ralph Fiennes; there, the play kept the Don Juan sequence, but edited all the acts down as we do as a matter of course with, say, Shakespeare. It felt like a play.

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Close to the final moments of the opening performance of this seemingly slightly under-rehearsed Shaw production, Powell suddenly tripped over a line as Tanner. He laughed and shook his head, and Topham also broke character to laugh with him, and the audience applauded wildly. It was a wonderful moment, a release, an acknowledgment of what we’d all come to see – something perhaps more about acting as athleticism and theatre as endurance. Presented in this way, Man and Superman is essentially kryptonite to criticism.

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