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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Back To Methuselah
The Pit Winter 2000-01

George Bernard Shaw wrote this cycle of five long plays in 1920 and, understandably, it has been performed only very rarely since, and then almost always in condensed form. The one previous time I saw it was a two-night adaptation, and now David Fielding has gotten it down to one four-hour session for the Royal Shakespeare Company. This "greatest hits from Back to Methuselah" approach doesn't quite work; it may be a lot better than nothing for the Shaw connoisseur, but it is still too much, with too little reward, for most of us.

Shaw's subject is nothing less than all of human history and future, starting with Adam and Eve, and going "as far as thought can reach," which in Shaw's case is 30,000 years from now. The central question is longevity, and the ideal lifespan for full human development.

In Eden, Adam and Eve first encounter death and choose to fight it through procreation rather than immortality. In 1920, philosopher-scientists propose 300 years as an appropriate life span, little realizing that there are already some humans capable of that age. Two centuries later, those people find each other and begin a new race; and 700 years later the long-lifers are beginning to tire of the mere mortals remaining among them. And in the distant future, all that we now think of as human activity is condensed into the first four years of childhood, leaving adults a near immortality for spiritual contemplation.

At each step of the way, Shaw gets to employ his signature technique of turning theoretical debate into theatre just by making the discussion really interesting and frequently epigrammatically witty. And at each step he flirts with his signature weakness of becoming more essayist than playwright, letting the characters lapse into mouthpieces for the author rather than realized characters.

So, for example, the dim politicians to whom the philosophers explain their theory are too-easy targets for irrelevant political satire, while the 3000 AD encounter between short- and long-lifers becomes too programmatically a contrast of messy-but-rounded humanity and cold, dehumanized perfection.

And so, despite the fact that much of the theoretical discussion is indeed engrossing, it is the few flashes of recognizable human experience that stand out. The somewhat air-headed Adam (Tim Treloar) and Eve (Caroline Harris) mature before our eyes as they discover words with which to express their ever-more-complex thoughts. Cain, and his spiritual descendant 7000 years later (both played by Adam Levy), represent the darkest, most destructive human impulses, but with a vitality and energy most other characters lack. Julian Curry gives poignancy to the short-lifer faced with the smug rejection of all he considers human.

But these are isolated flashes in an otherwise rather flat evening. Director David Fielding has not mastered the text's essential lifelessness, and the device of having scene changes engineered by scientists in some cosmic experimental laboratory only distances us further from the characters. With the exception of the few moments I've mentioned, the actors, many doubling several roles, seem lost through much of the long evening.

The best elements of Back to Methuselah are there, in much more accessible form, in Shaw's more familiar plays. This one, I fear, is strictly for the collector of curiosities

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Back to Methuselah - RSC Pit 2000