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.

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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. 

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

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