Note: The following review dates from the production's original Stratford run in September 2000.
George Bernard Shaw wasn't as great a philosopher or a dramatist as he thought he was, but this play of ideas is still well worth a visit. Shaw described Back to Methuselah as his 'Ring Cycle' and the long five-part epic has been skilfully abridged by director David Fielding to a mere four hours, which covers 31,934 years of human history and evolution.
The play begins in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve realising the horror of immortality and welcoming the certainty of death. But Shaw reminds us that the Biblical life-span, before the time of Moses, was a thousand years. Act Two takes place in 1920, Shaw's present day, when the Barnabas brothers argue that a life-span of 70 years is far too short for human beings to achieve wisdom. If they willed it, people could live for three hundred years, and this fact would transform the way they thought about their lives.
The remaining three acts are set in the future - 300 years, 1,000 years, and 30,000 years - after human-kind has taken the great evolutionary leap into longevity. Shaw's witty and provocative vision is at times predictably wordy and didactic. It speaks volumes for the quality of the acting and the imagination of the direction that the audience isn't bored and the long evening passes painlessly.
There's no weak link in the ensemble of 11 actors who play the 37 characters. Amongst the younger performers, Nina Conti and Adam Levy exude vigour and enthusiasm. But it's two of the older actors who take the major plaudits. Julian Curry as Barnabas, the Elderly Gentleman and the He-Ancient and Janet Whiteside as the Serpent, the Oracle and the She-Ancient, combine the experience of a lifetime with tremendous attack and energy.
Set in the intimate space of The Other Place, Fielding's direction and Andrew Walsh's design are inventive and manage somehow to be both faithful to Shaw and relevant to the present day. Many of the play's themes remain pertinent: the relationship between men and women, the shallowness and opportunism of politicians, the creation of human life by scientists in the laboratory, and the likelihood that the process of human evolution is not yet complete.
But be warned. First and last, this is a play of ideas, ideas wrapped up in acres of Shavian dialogue. All the considerable skills of production and cast cannot disguise that fact. Go and see it, only if you are prepared to think about the play - the purpose of human life and the future evolution of the race. Even then, it's unlikely to change radically the way you think about the world, but it will give you a long evening of stimulating entertainment.
Back to Methuselah opened at The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, 30 August 2000 (previews from 24 August) and continues there in repertory until 7 October 2000.