Review: MAN AND SUPERMAN with DON JUAN IN HELL at the Shaw Festival

by Lynn on August 31, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Festival Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Written by George Bernard Shaw

Directed by Kimberley Rampersad

Designed by Camellia Koo

Lighting by Kevin Lamotte

Original Music by Joseph Tritt

Cast: David Adam

Kyle Blair

Martha Burns

Jason Cadieux

Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster

Sharry Flett

Jeff Irving

Tanja Jacobs

Tom McCamus

Gray Powell

Sanjay Talwar

Shauna Thompson

Sara Topham

A beast of a play, a terrific cast with a Hurculean effort by Gray Powell as Jack Tanner, hype up the wazzoo that this is a once-in-a-lifetime event, but in spite of it all this production should have been better.

The Story. It’s about sexual politics; man-women relations, marriage, independence, manipulation, and even a discourse on heaven, hell and the Devil.

Ann Whitefield’s father has just died and his will stipulates that she have two guardians: Roebuck Ramsden, an old friend of the family and Jack Tanner, a childhood friend of Ann’s now a confident adult and self-professed Member of the Idle Rich class—Shaw being cheeky.

Jack is also an anarchist—he wrote “The Revolutionists’s Handbook” and he absolutely doesn’t want to be Ann’s guardian. She’s wily, quietly smart, manipulative and she obviously wants Jack as her husband. This is clear to the audience. For all of Jack’s philosophizing, esoteric banter with her he doesn’t have a chance.

To complicate matters Ann is pursued with great insecure ardour by Octavius Robinson a man so insecure and wobbly he can hardly stand up for himself. Octavius is also a good friend of Jack’s so there is that tricky situation. There is no rivalry between the two men, but there is Ann between them, being masterful in playing her games with each man.

Ann gives every indication that she will always do what her parents and guardians tell her to do. Don’t believe a word of it.  Ann knows what she wants and it’s obvious she wants Jack and goes after him with skill, finesse, subtlety and quiet ruthlessness.

The Don Juan in Hell scene (actually Act III of the whole play) is a dream sequence that takes place first in the Sierra Nevada and then with Don Juan in Hell. Beyond Space, Beyond Time.

Jack knows he is doomed to fall under the spell of Ann, a woman with a tremendous life force and resistance is futile. I think Shaw actually meant to name the play “Man and Superwoman” but chose to let us come to that conclusion ourselves.

 The Production and Comment. I call Man and Superman with Don Juan in Hell a beast because it’s a four Act comedy and a Philosophy by Bernard Shaw at his wordiest. It’s about all sorts of philosophical issues not the least of which are: man-women relations, marriage, class attitudes, anarchy and revolution.

Usually the third Act Don Juan in Hell scene is often cut and Acts I, II and IV are played as the complete play.

Not here.

We get the full Shaw that includes the long Don Juan in Hell scene.  Using Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni (which in turn is based on Don Juan, a fictional seducer of women) Don Juan is in Hell and debates the Devil on heaven, hell, damnation, women, the economy, brigands and all manner of philosophical discourse.

With all four acts including 2 intermissions it’s 5 hours and 15 minutes of Shaw at his most impish, diabolical, intellectually bracing, vegetarian self. The Shaw programme adds the 1 hour 15 minute lunch-break to the running time which I think is rather cheeky of them making the play seem longer than it is.

Director Kimberley Rampersad has envisioned a world of books and designer Camellia Koo’s set realizes that world. Her set is composed of two huge, high bookshelves, one on either side of the stage with two movable library stairs to climb to the highest reaches of the shelves, one on each side of the stage as well.  Furniture—a smart antique desk and chairs for the first scene–is spare but beautiful.

The acting is fine with Gray Powell doing Herculean work as Jack Tanner. There is an ease about the performance. Jack flits around the stage, hands in his pants pockets, relaxed, in control and in command. The words gush out of him as he establishes points of his many arguments and theories. He has a keen idea of himself, in that he knows he is a member of the idle rich and tries to do something positive with it. He has written “The Revolutionist’s Handbook” in which he discusses such topics as: “On Good Breeding,” “Property and Marriage,”  “Man’s Objection to His Own Improvement,” “Prudery Explained” and “Progress an Illusion.”  Jack gave a copy of the book to Roebuck Ramsden (a wonderfully blustery David Adams) who would not think of reading it, but still has an opinion of it.

For all of Tanner’s bluster and gushing dialogue and his energetic flitting around the space expounding, that is as still as Sara Topham is as Ann. She is wily, calculating and focused on getting her man. Topham listens calmly, eyes wide in wonder? Disbelief? at what Jack is saying, trying to suggest that she really does not have any opinions of her own, that they all come from her parents or guardians. Ann matches Tanner point for point. Her calculation is clear to the audience and her mother (a wonderful performance full of graceful exasperation by Sharry Flett) but certainly not to anyone (men?) on stage. Ann’s watchful silence cuts Tanner’s verbiage like a machete whizzing through chaff.

Ann’s other suitor is Octavius Robinson and is played with proper, devoted puppy love by Kyle Blair. He is desperate to be married to Ann but as she philosophizes this type of man never marries. They just pine. Kyle Blair pines beautifully.

As wimpy as Octavius is, his sister Violet (a formidable Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster) is a blazingly confident, straight-backed woman without a sense of humour. Perhaps she is funny because she doesn’t have a sense of humour. Violet sees the world, knows what she wants of it and goes after it. She doesn’t have the wiliness of Ann, but she is commanding in her own way. Ch’ng Lancaster carries off the ‘look’ and stature of Violet with great style.

In the dream world of the Sierra Nevada there is the brigand named Mendoza, a Spanish Jew. In gender-bending casting Martha Burns plays both Mendoza, with quiet swagger, and the subtlest of Spanish accents, and the Devil. As the Devil and Burns is so reasoned she is compelling.

But what am I to say about this production as a whole, that is billed as “a once in a lifetime event, only has 17 performances and is unnecessarily overpriced with a top ticket costing $271? (The other show at the Festival Theatre is Brigadoon with a top price of $167.)

It’s underwhelming.

So we got through the five hours and fifteen minutes of Man and Superman. That’s not good enough to earn praise.  It is a once in a lifetime event if you don’t go to the theatre again.  Man and Superman has played at the Shaw Festival five times before and each time had a much longer run over the summer and it was priced along the same lines as the other plays at that time.

Why do I say it’s “underwhelming?” Because it’s under rehearsed. Too many lines were flubbed on the opening night.  The cast etc. obviously needed more rehearsal. When you charge that much money for a ticket and foist it on the public with that much hype you better get it right and those holding the purse strings better find the money and the time to allow the cast and creatives to get it right. It doesn’t look like that happened.

And, this pains me, director Kimberley Rampersad is not ready for this huge a directing task. She is a dancer-choreographer who is transitioning to directing.  She took the Shaw Festival’s director’s training program two summers ago and was an assistant director during that summer season. Artistic Director Tim Carroll then assigned her to direct the lunch hour show of O’Flaherty VC. last year. And she did a good job. Last year she directed a musical and co-directed a play elsewhere.

 And now Tim Carroll thinks she’s ready to tackle Man and Superman with Don Juan in Hell, one of the most difficult plays in the canon?

Sorry, no.

You don’t teach an eager artist about directing by throwing them in the deep end and hoping they can swim and learn the intricacies of directing on a huge stage by osmosis. (Tim Carroll’s troubling penchant for using the multi-million dollar Shaw Festival as his incubator for pedagogical exploration is best left for comment for another time.)

But to my concerns with the production: at the beginning of Man and Superman the cast of characters march out and line up along the lip of the stage and then do a dumb show of passing cards to characters in some kind of choreographed formation. Since we don’t know who these characters are yet the point of the dumb show is confusing and mystifying. Not a good idea to start a production by confusing the audience.

Because Shaw references Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni in Man and Superman and Shaw considered the play an opera (it is grand enough to be considered thus) Rampersad imagines the first scene between Ramsden and Octavius to be sung through, complete with harpsichord accompaniment. This is an interesting idea but ultimately distracting. Again one is confused—why are we listening to Shaw’s dialogue sung like an opera’s recitative with a harpsichord that occasionally drowns out the dialogue, when it’s supposed to be a play? Again, don’t confuse the audience.

Fortunately this concept does not continue too long and we go back to ‘just’ listening to Shaw’s dialogue as it’s spoken. But then…Octavius (Kyle Blair) sits in a chair talking to Ramsden (David Adam) and for no reason Octavius gets up, walks about ten feet downstage away from the chair, turns and continues talking, until he then returns to sit in the chair. He does this several times. What is that? Simple rule of staging—don’t move a character for no reason.

Too often characters scurry up and down the movable library steps positioned upstage and too often that movement and conversation upstages the conversation going on downstage.

I noticed that very often Kimberley Rampersad staged scenes upstage about the middle of the large stage. I wonder if the people sitting in the first four rows of the theatre can see that far back of the stage. When I sat in the second row, even fleetingly, I couldn’t see that far back. (terrible seats by the way)

In the Don Juan in Hell scene, we are in Hell (duh).  Don Juan, Doña Ana and The Statue are waiting for the Devil to appear. She (Martha Burns) rises up out of the mist from a round circle in the floor as per Shaw’s stage direction. Very dramatic.  Later Don Juan decides to leave Hell for the nicer atmosphere of Heaven.  So he stands on the round circle in the floor and then he too lowers down and disappears. Also dramatic.

Here’s my question? Where are these characters coming from and going too? Is the Devil rising up from a basement in Hell?  Is Don Juan lowering into an underground path to eventually rise to Heaven? Staging has to make sense and not just look good.  This is fundamental to directing.

This production of Man and Superman needs to be better and it’s frustrating that it’s not, good acting notwithstanding.

The Shaw Festival presents.

Began: Aug. 17, 2019.

Closes: Oct. 5, 2019.

Running time: 5 hours and 15 minutes including two 15 minute intermissions.

Leave a Comment

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kent James August 31, 2019 at 5:16 pm

Hi Lynn:

Seeing the whole thing is rare – I think that’s the point. The last time it was done in 2004 it was done a similar number of times in its entirety. For most people it’s once in a lifetime.

We paid $43 for 4 seats in the front two rows – affordability is not an issue. What is the complaint with the top ticket price if the show is selling out – shouldn’t they charge what the market will bear? (Also not problem seeing the whole stage from the front).

You’ll be glad to know that we loved it, didn’t notice anything we’d characterise as scurrying or unnecessary moving around, and managed not the get confused by the direction of Don Juan’s exit or the interesting delivery of the first part of Scene 1 in song.

We also enjoyed our 1 hour 15 break in the middle, although the food was better in 2004 (lemon pound cake and fresh strawberries as I recall).



2 Isobel A Smith September 20, 2019 at 10:29 am

We saw the play September 19 and tickets were 79. Great seats . Impressed with the play and amazed with the debates and no of lines exploring all areas of culture , politics and sociological relationships . Impressive . We have seen previous productions of this play and thought this was the best .
Perhaps the fresh new Directors focus was right on ! perish the thought that the reviewer didn’t recognise that approach .
Hamlet is supposed to have the most lines by a character in a play , over 4000 . How many lines does Jack Tanner have in Man and Superman ? A trivia question .