(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/26.)
“My method,” Bernard Shaw once said, “is founded upon music.” So it seems fitting that Simon Godwin’s modern-dress revival of this epic comedy should open with John Tanner, played by Ralph Fiennes, choosing a track from Don Giovanni on Desert Island Discs and end on a note of Mozartian ecstasy. What we see, in the intervening three-and-a-half hours, is akin to spoken opera.
At first, I had doubts about Godwin’s updating. The comedy of the first two acts depends heavily on Shaw’s exposure of social hypocrisy and reversal of theatrical conventions. He was, after all, writing in 1901-03 when Tanner’s revolutionary ideas, as well as the notion of an unmarried woman getting pregnant, might have seemed faintly shocking: today we take them in our stride. In the second act we see Tanner fleeing by car to Spain to escape the clutches of the pursuing heroine, Ann Whitefield. But the joke about the chauffeur who is wiser than his employer belongs to a period in which other comedies, including JM Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton, pointed up the helpless dependency of the rich.