Back to Methuselah

Tuesday, 6 March, 2001

Bernard Shaw’s epic “Back to Methuselah”, which was first performed in 1922, has been revived by The Royal Shakespeare Company to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Shaw’s death. David Fielding’s abridgement has succeeded in shortening this five-part play down to 4 fascinating hours.

I don’t normally like long plays, but this intriguing epic is so captivating you hardly notice the time. Shaw’s wonderful play tackles human history in five parts starting with Adam and Eve and finishing 30,000 years in the future. It concerns Bernard Shaw’s vision of immortality and questions whether it would be a good or bad thing!

The first part entitled “In The Beginning: The Garden of Eden 4004BC”, concerns Adam and Eve’s first contact with the Serpent played brilliantly by Janet Whiteside. The Serpent teaches them about birth, death, fear, hope and uncertainty, which produce some delightful exchanges between the three characters. Adam and Eve are supposed to be naked, so the actors are dressed in tight fitting white suits with male and female genitalia drawn on them, a clever idea!

The second part moves forward to 1920 and is entitled, “The Gospel of the Brothers Barnabas, Hampstead, London 1920”. Here, a couple of biologists are discussing the possibility of being able to live for 300 years. They state that it is possible, not by taking drugs, but merely by having the wish.

The third part moves into the future, entitled “The Thing Happens, Presidential Office 2170AD”. Here we see that certain humans have succeeded in living to be 300 years-old. However, it is not without problems. These people feel they have to be secret about it and thus fake their own deaths many times and move to different parts of the country to keep their secret. They have a sense of loneliness and often wish they could die sooner. However, their secret is about to be exposed!

The fourth part shifts even further into the future to 3000AD, entitled, “Tragedy of an Elderly Gentleman, Galway, Ireland”. Interestingly at this point the world is split into those people who can live a long time and those that live a normal life-span. However, many long-lifers believe they are the superior race and should actually kill all the short-lifers.

The final part moves 30,000 years into the future, entitled, “As Far as Thought Can Reach. Arcadia. 31,920-AD”. Here humans have evolved to be able to live for hundreds of years and are now born from an egg and proceed to mentally grow 50 years in only 2 years! In this final part Shaw points out that humans have now outgrown their own bodies and suggest a state where one can continue to live without a body.

Shaw’s vision of immortality is an interesting and thought provoking one. We would all like to live forever, but Shaw makes us ask would we really want too. I personally cannot accept Shaw’s vision, but nevertheless it is an intriguing one.

The company perform brilliantly on a bare stage with only a few wire chairs and cushions for props.

This Stratford-upon-Avon transfer has received mixed reviews from the popular press… PATRICK MARMION for THE EVENING STANDARD says, “The resourceful company show great endurance, but brevity, not longevity, remains the soul of wit.” IAN JOHNS for THE TIMES says, “….it doesn’t make for compelling drama and Shaw’s theme, even in this pruned version, seems overstretched.” MARK ESPINER for TIME OUT describes it has a “satisfying production” and “hugely entertaining and stimulating”. WILLIAM MCEVOY for THE STAGE says the play “is a stunning feat of theatrical imagination”.

This epic is full of surprises and is thoroughly enjoyable.

(Darren Dalglish)

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