Produced at a time (1981) when the BBC were committed to its public service remit of educating and informing as well as entertaining, Desmond Davis's PLAY OF THE MONTH production offers a trenchant rendering of Shaw's minor classic.
First produced in 1897, THE MAN OF DESTINY is a fantasy based on the life of Napoleon Bonaparte (Simon Callow). At the height of his despotic power, he believes that he can carry all before him, and invariably does so, exerting his authority over a clueless lieutenant (David Troughton) and an apparently servile innkeeper (Niall Toibin). However Napoleon meets his match when he encounters an unidentified Lady (Delphine Seyrig) who previously has disguised herself as a man in order to obtain some letters off the lieutenant.
The plot - if it can be called so - centers around a packet of letters that Napoleon wants to obtain off the Lady, and thus prepared to stoop to any levels to obtain them. What Shaw is more concerned with is the verbal battle between the two of them, as they try every single strategy they know to outwit one another. Although believing himself to be the eponymous "man of destiny," Napoleon appears to have met his match with the Lady.
The script fairly crackles with witticisms, culminating in a long diatribe against the English, which might be construed as the Irishman Shaw's revenge against the colonizer, but which has the distinct whiff of a rhetorical flourish, the kind of portentous dialogue that he was fond of deflating.
The action takes place in one set, and is largely continuous, with the focus of attention on the characters' expressions. This is an intimate form of television, requiring great concentration on the actors' part, especially when Davis's camera tracks their movements away from and towards one another. Callow and Seyrig are especially memorable; Callow full of bluster contrasting with Seyrig's calm rationality. Troughton turns in a memorable cameo as the hapless lieutenant.
THE MAN OF DESTINY demands our attention, as we listen to the dialogue and try to make sense of it. Nonetheless the production remains a highly rewarding one.
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