1.) Man and Superman, at the National Theatre. This one I wanted to see rather badly, because a) it's the complete version, which is almost never shown - they usually cut the Don Juan in Hell interlude-, and b) it stars Ralph Fiennes as John Tanner and Indira Varma as Ann Whitfield. Also, the NT always does well with Shaw. This production is another case in point. This is a three hour play, not counting the break, and an idea play at that, i.e. Shaw uses the flimsiest comedy conventions of his day (parodied and turned upside down by him, of course, but a century later what was then original reverse and parody has long since become the new convention, such as women as the pursuer, men as the pursued etc.) to provide minimum plot so he can use the characters to spout his philosophy. Which is also outdated now. It shouldn't work. And yet, it does, both because Shaw's display of rethoric fireworks always comes with witty flourishes, and because the actors are up to the task.
As a result, you have a long play which doesn't feel long at all. I've heard Fiennes as John Tanner in a radio production of the play before, so I knew he was up for the language (and given his character has to carry the majority of the rethorics, you really need an actor who can deliver them!), but on stage he also gives Tanner a manic physical energy. Not Don Juan in the interlude, btw; I thought that was a neat and subtle choice, because Juan after centuries in the afterlife is a far wearier version of the character, and so to let him be far more self contained and low scale in his movements as opposed to Tanner who is often crossing the stage was a logical difference.
Indira Varma (whom I've seen in a lot of tv, from Rome to Torchwood to Luther) was also up for both the charm and the ruthless go-getting of Ann, though given she's not just drop dead gorgeous but has such an aura of self assurance, it was a bit defying belief that everybody but Tanner and her mother would buy the "obedient and dutiful helpless woman" act instead of immediately seeing through it. Then again: this is one of the ways in which what was a present-day play in Shaw's time, dealing with contemporary people, can't really be transported into the current day in our part of the world because for starters Ann and her sister, both of whom are adults by our reckoning, wouldn't need guardians after the death of their father, and even if they were made a bit younger they still wouldn't need them since they have a living mother. This production doesn't go for Edwardian costumes, btw, it has everyone wear (our) present day clothing, and has added some updating (so John Tanner receives a text from Rhoda on his mobile cell phone instead of a written message on paper), and on the one hand, I think Shaw would be pleased because other than his actual historicals, he never wanted to write costume plays, but on the other hand, like I said, the whole guardian bit makes no sense in the current day, and the opening scene - which had people chuckling and laughing within a few minutes of the play starting, proving the gags still work - really depends on it. Also, the Violet subplot which is Shaw's parody of a Victorian melodramatic convention (so everyone expects Violet to be A Fallen Woman swept away by passion when she turns out to be a very sensibly organized and married one very aware of the need for money to finance her life style) is more believable in the period that it's set in if you think about it, but again, the energy of the performances and all the well delivered punchlines make you buy it while you're watching.
In conclusion: very worth watching, if you can get a ticket; I had to queue early in the morning for a hopeful return, andn lucked out.
2.) Oppenheimer, a new play by Tom Morton-Smith, produced by the RSC and moved to London. The other one I wanted to watch, not just because the recent tv series Manhattan reminded me of the subject and themes again. If you're German and my age, chances are you've read In der Sache J. Robert Oppenheimer by Heiner Kipphardt in school or seen a production, because that particular play by now has achieved modern post WWII German literature/theatre status. (We read it in conjunction with Friedrich Dürrematt's Die Physiker and had to analyze how both dealt with theme of scientific discovery in the service of power, ethical responsibilities of scientists etc.) Now Kipphardt's play - which was first produced in Oppenheimer's life time, and he wasn't thrilled, quipping that it "turned the whole damn farce into a tragedy" - was based on the transcripts of the 1950s McCarthy era hearings in which Oppenheimer's loyalty had been questioned, and that's an era Morton-Smith's play stays away from, though it's obviously conscious of it; the new play starts in the later 1930s and ends a few weeks after Hiroshima.
In the program, you can read the author commenting that for a while Oppenheimer had been as well known as Einstein to the general public but while Einstein was cast in pop culture as the wise and cheery old uncle in pop culture (never mind how questionable that is in reality), Oppenheimer, quoth Morton-Smith, "retains something of the mad scientist about him. He is the 20th century's Victor Frankenstein - a man who pushed science beyond what whas natural and brought forth a monster."
"Victor Frankenstein" is as good a character description as any for Morton-Smith's Oppenheimer, which is perhaps why the actor who plays him, John Heffernan, is better in the second half of the play than he's in the first one. In the first half, when Oppenheimer is supposed to be optimistic, charismatic in a drawing-people-to-him way, you don't really buy it (case in point: the opening monologue which is Oppenheimer addressing his students in Berkeley, which is obviously meant to sound witty and thought provoking - but the actor just plain doesn't come across as either) but in the second half, when he's simultanously hubristic and increasingly self loathing, aware he's selling out more and more of his former ideals but clinging to it being worth it because of the end goal, with, to borrow a Joss Whedon phrase, an inferiority complex wrapped around his superiority complex (or the otherh way around), you do believe the character from both a writing and an acting point of view.
Other than Oppenheimer, the scientists given enough lines to get characterisation are his brother Frank, Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, Giovanni Rossi Lomanitz, Robert Wilson and Charlotte Serber. (Klaus Fuchs shows up, but briefly, and has a quick exchange with Hans Bethe in German in which the actors impressed me because while it was evident neither of them was German they did pronounce the things they said correctly, with the right speech rhythm, so they must have taken the trouble to get coached for what were only two or three sentences. (Bethe asks him about Leipzig and his family, Fuchs says that all of his family are dead.) ) I'm especially glad about Charlotte Serber's existence as a dramatic character, because the two women in Oppenheimer's life follow traditional roles and come more across as aspects of him rather than characters in their own right - Jean the idealistic Communist who commits suicide (which kills the last of Oppenheimer's idealism), Kitty the ambitious wife urging him onwards in his career. Charlotte otoh as the only female department head can be both ambitious and idealistic (and have a good relationship with her husband).
Idea-wise, perhaps the two key scenes are the argument between Oppenheimer and Wilson after VE-day, in which Wilson brings up that since the bomb won't be used on Germany anymore, and the Japanese don't have the capacity for a nuclear program of their own, why use it at all, wouldn't a test site demonstration be enough, or couldn't Oppenheimer tell the military the science doesn't work after all, etc., and Oppenheimer replies in an outburst: "The bomb must be used... and used on people.. before the war ends. If the world is not aware that these weapons can and do exist... if it was to be keppt a military secret... then the first strike of whatever war comes next would be an atomic one. It would be Edward Teller's super-bomb."
This is of course the still debated argument to which there is no answer (yet): is the whole reason why nuclear bombs were never used in any war post WWII the fact they WERE used and everyone could see the results? Would they have been used during the Cold War if that hadn't happened? The idea to create a weapon so awful that nobody dares to use it has haunted the 20th century, and it certainly didn't work with nerve gas, but whether or not it worked with the atomic bomb... I guess we'll still find out. Given current politics.
Anyway, the counterpoint to this scene is the final one. Now the play actually includes Trinity but has Oppenheimer remain silent during it (and staggers away while everyone is celebrating afterwards), and I was curious whether Morton-Smith would actually not include the famous quote. But no. Instead, he has Oppenheimer use it in the very last scene, in a bitter conversation with Kitty (and after a bitter one with Lomanitz (L: "You were a radical. And now...finally now...you are in a position to act on your ideals." O: "Let me tell you how you become a man of power. Of influence: you trade your ideals for self interest.") That very last scene plays up the ambivalence again, the old hunger for fame and the new abhorrence for the full implication, has him declare "I accept on my soul... on my back...I accept the weight of those Japanese... if I have brought atomic power to the world...if I have nullified war... then I welcome it all. But no. Instead I feel like I've left a loaded gun in a playground." And this monologue culminates in the famous line: "There's a passage in the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, it came to my mind at the Trinity test".
So the very last words of the play are : "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."
Which is perhaps the only way you can end a play with this temporal frame. I'm not sure that as a play, it will uphold the way the Kipphardt play did, because it changes focus a couple of times, and there is some clumsy exposition (Oppenheimer delivers a key memory of his teenage years to a psychiatrist who never shows up before or after), but it certainly kept my attention while I was watching, and continues to make me think.