Man and Superman, Theatre Royal, Bath

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The Independent Culture

Even in George Bernard Shaw's day, his epic drama Man and Superman was one hell of a challenge.

Even in George Bernard Shaw's day, his epic drama Man and Superman was one hell of a challenge. Whatever you make of the play's somewhat separate "Don Juan in Hell" episode - a "quartet for voices" in which any sensible musician would certainly curtail the exposition and compress the development - Peter Hall's brave production provides a rare chance to experience something like the full Shaw.

When Man and Superman was staged in uncut form in 1915, the play lasted five hours. But although in the text of the dream sequence, the Devil suggests keeping the hellish debate going for another hour, Hall has worked wonders, containing his interpretation - play and dream-play, comedy and philosophy - within three and a half hours.

Man and Superman is in turn enthralling, exasperating, engaging, exhausting, and goodness knows how taxing for Hall's valiant company, some of whom are inevitably overexposed in such a concentrated season. Given the thematic links between the scheduled plays, including Molière's Don Juan, it's surprising that Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing isn't featured, too, since Shaw acknowledged its influence on his dramatic parable (alongside Mozart's Don Giovanni), although Shakespeare makes much less ado about rather more.

Loosely basing his work on the legend of Don Juan - the insatiable philanderer converted by Byron into the pursued rather than the pursuer - Shaw neuters him into an almost perfectly ordinary chap, adding the themes of money and marriage to the moral maze. Heading the ensemble cast, in which characters play their named roles as well as mythic figures delivering long-winded opinions, Will Keen and Rebecca Hall are stretched to their limits in the demanding central roles of Tanner/Don Juan and Ann/Donna Anna.

Shaw's allegedly enlightened portrayal of women taking the initiative, thus enabling heroines to trap their prey, has the effect of making them seem merely manipulative and cynical, and men the innocent victims. So, why this obsession with Don Juan when there is no Don Juanism? In fact, a lot of Man and Superman is clunky and inconsistent, its veiled references and character development often making frustratingly little sense.

Yet, despite being hugely flawed as a play, and scarcely credible as a story, it has a certain Shavian, even Wildean appeal, with witticisms about music, the morals of the upper classes and the integrity of politicians. From its opening in an Edwardian study, to rocky Sierra Nevada, from a ghostly underworld to elegant Granada, and with a nifty little car tootling across the stage, it is stylishly presented, even if it does go on.

In repertory to 14 August (01225 448844)

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