Tim McMullan (Mendoza) & Ralph Fiennes (John Tanner). Photo: Johan Persson/National Theatre
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George Bernard Shaw and David Hare: the political theatre that gets better with age

George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman and David Hare's The Absence of War have an ideology that speaks to today's politics.

Man and Superman
Lyttleton Theatre, London SE1

The Absence of War
Sheffield Crucible and on UK Tour
 

One measure of impact is whether writers bestow an adjective: Shakespearean, Chekhovian, Brechtian or Pinteresque. George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), a contrary type, is immortalised fittingly by a term that does not quite contain his name. “Shavian” drama, which turns on ideological debate, remains a powerful theatrical “life force” (an important concept for the playwright) three-quarters of a century after his death.

Tom Stoppard’s latest play, The Hard Problem, which sets rationalists against the religious, is very much a Shaw thing, and David Hare (who challenges adjectival memorial – Harite? Hairy?) repeatedly sets two viewpoints in passionate opposition, as in his 1993 play about Labour Party politics, The Absence of War. A revival of the Hare at the same time as a new National Theatre production of Shaw’s 1903 drama, Man and Superman, offers an intriguing conjunction of Shavian and neo-Shavian plays.

Man and Superman borrows its title from Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch and its plot from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, but flips the sexual dynamics so that Shaw’s hero, Jack Tanner, is a nervous and virginal man at the mercy of attempted ensnarement by a woman. Unusually, because it takes almost five hours to perform its four acts, Man and Superman exists in two versions. A three-act anti-romantic comedy featuring Jack and Ann, intermittently done as a West End star vehicle, omits the fantastical “Don Juan in Hell” sequence, in which Jack, kidnapped by brigands on a motoring holiday in Spain, dreams he has become Mozart’s hero and is debating with Satan.

Simon Godwin’s production attempts the entire text, but trims it to a relatively Beckettian three and a half hours and moves it to a sort of modern day, in which there is one mobile phone but a left-wing writer has a uniformed chauffeur. Judiciously cut, the non-romcom scenes are still funny enough but the optional debate in Hades proves unmissable: a soaring forum of ideas about evolution, revolution and religion in which Jack/Juan’s long, linguistically and philosophically twisty arias are answered with wry one-liners from the Devil, tremendously portrayed by Tim McMullan as a slippery, Wildean wit.

Ralph Fiennes, easily and charmingly in command of one of the longest parts in drama, remains vocally clear even at high speed and is also physically thoughtful; when Jack takes off on one of his rhetorical flights, the actor contorts his torso and limbs, making literal the idea of posturing or being a poseur. As Ann, Indira Varma projects a sensuality and intellect that Jack cannot resist. A dramatist at risk of being written off as a windbag is given second wind in a production that makes thinking thrilling.

Hare made his Shavian interests explicit by directing a production of Heartbreak House, Shaw’s 1919 state-of-England play, in the 1990s, a decade when he wrote a trilogy of his own that included The Absence of War (touring until May). It features George Jones, a reformist Labour leader admired for his oratory but doubted on his economics, who loses to a weak Tory leader after being mocked by tabloids and doubted in his own party. The dramatist had spent the 1992 election on Neil Kinnock’s battle-bus.

Hare said in a recent interview that he prefers directors not to update his plays: in Jeremy Herrin’s version, political news flickers on Ceefax and the fictional Labour politicians express fears that their party will never return to government. Jones’s 1990s problems with the media and colleagues are, however, more or less those of Ed Miliband. And Hare’s depiction of a great public speaker who is forced to be careful what he says makes you think of Barack Obama and all the other modern politicians silenced by a digital audience always looking for the wrong end of the stick. Reece Dinsdale’s Jones is sensibly a sort of Everyleader, and subtly shows how the man has become two different people in public and private.

The best scene is the most consciously Shavian: exhausted at the end of a day’s separate campaigning, Jones and the smoothly superior shadow chancellor (Gyuri Sarossy) meet in an aircraft hangar to argue the merits of party discipline and the pursuit of power over ideological rigour. It would make uncomfortable viewing for Miliband, but also for Cameron and Clegg.

Grown free from its presumed Kinnockian roots, The Absence of War proves, after last year’s triumphant revisiting of Skylight, another of Hare’s assertions: his plays usually improve on revival. 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Islamic is Islamic State?

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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories