If the plays of George Bernard Shaw are more admired than staged these days, this one may explain why. A National Theatre production, it weighs in at more than three and a half hours including interval, because it includes the third act - an extended dream sequence known as Don Juan in Hell, which is usually dropped (it didn't even make the premiere production).
What's more, the original includes a preface about a quarter as long as the play itself and an appendix adds the full text of the Revolutionist's Handbook and Pocket Companion, a book supposedly written by the main character, Jack Tanner: in both, Shaw rehearses many of the ideas that animate the play itself.
To modern ears, this can seem like unconscionable verbosity - I confess I found Act III wearying - and Tanner must surely be in the front rank of the theatre's most relentlessly garrulous characters. (Fiennes' fluent performance is, above all else, a titanic display of memorisation).
But Shaw, who rejected the frothy conventions of the late Victorian theatre and subtitled the play A Comedy and a Philosophy, was offering something more substantial than an evening's light entertainment.
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For all that, there's a bracingly modern feel to the piece, a treatment of the Don Juan story that upends the gender roles and argues what anyone should know by now: that, in affairs of the heart, women pursue and men are prey.
Tanner, derisively described in the opening scenes as a man who believes in "anarchism, free love and that sort of thing" is appointed joint guardian of Ann Whitefield (Varma) when her father dies, a prospect that horrifies him for reasons both obvious and obscure.
It is plain how things will turn out for those two (though that doesn't stop their final scene together from being brilliantly entertaining) but the road that leads there is full of dense metaphysical debate, mainly about what later audiences might call the battle of the sexes.
The play contains some of the most imperishable epigrams of a man who was a superstar of his times and is full of hilarious moments and crisp one-liners, more astringent than Wilde's but no less memorable. And at the head of a fine ensembles, Fiennes, who stands with legs apart like a helmsman on the bridge preparing for the storm that will engulf him, is superb as the fevered, frantic antihero. Well worth devoting an afternoon to.
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Indira Varma, Faye Castelow, Tim McMullan
Director: Simon Godwin
Rating: M (sexual references)
Running time: 220 mins
Verdict: Definitive but daunting.