At times you can't help thinking it's a practical – as if, to make us realise what it must be like to live for 300 years, George Bernard Shaw wrote a play that felt that long. And that's with David Fielding's abbreviated version of GBS's Back To Methuselah now running even more nippily in The Pit than it did last summer in Stratford; at barely three and three-quarter hours, it's now around a third of the duration of the full version.
Shaw was always a challenging thinker; sadly, his intellectual vitality did not always translate into dramatic vibrancy. His mammoth "Metabiological Pentateuch" – "my Ring," as he more succinctly referred to it – was the most exhaustive stage expression of his hopes for the future, as increasing longevity gives mankind a less ephemeral, self-interested perspective. However, neither Fielding's efficient cut of the text nor the excellent cast of his production can disguise the fact that more than a little of it isn't actually much cop as theatre.
Shaw's rewrite of the Fall in Eden is rather a joy, although Janet Whiteside's tuxedo-clad, microphone-toting Serpent behaves more like the Emcee in a Philip Prowse production of Cabaret; unfortunately, this is twinned with first murderer Cain's over-articulated hymn of praise to warfare as the act in which one is most truly alive. (This is itself recapitulated in an even more overdone version in Part Four.) In Part Two, set in what for Shaw was the present day of 1920, the vendetta between figures based on Lloyd George and Asquith shows that little changes in terms of political cant and posturing – a point underlined in the next section, set 250 years later, with Paul Greenwood almost reprising his earlier role as "Joyce Burge".
From here on in, though, social philosophy increasingly gains the upper hand over entertaining theatre. The politicos find that the theory of "Creative Evolution" so derided by their 1920 ancestors has come true, and the current Archbishop of York is the dozy curate from way back then; however, between this point and the end Shaw can do little to illustrate the growing "wisdom" of the new breed except make them behave increasingly de haut en bas towards those unlike themselves: first with indulgence, then contempt towards the "short-lived", finally (in 31,920 A.D.) with an impatience to be rid of physical incarnation altogether. However infantile the others may seem beside these supposed paragons, we cannot help but prefer such childishness to the icy pinnacles which are the alternative. Of course, this is another instance of Shaw refusing to shy away from interrogating even his own cherished views, but I'm afraid that in this case he defeats himself.
Paul Greenwood, Bruce Purchase and in particular Julian Curry turn in batches of fine performances down the centuries, and Nina Conti completes a trio of Freudian innuendo-laden performances this RSC season. The cod-futurism of Fielding's vision has some nice touches (in 2170 AD, President Greenwood is shown playing Pong, the most primitive of video games), but elsewhere rankles (we don't need the theremin effects as the wise ones work their brainy magic); the white-box environment of The Pit this year makes a useful tabula rasa for whatever Fielding and designer Andrew Walsh want to put on top of it, but they also have felt a little too compelled to fill the empty space.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
Return to index of reviews for the year 2001
Return to master reviews index
Return to main theatre page
Return to Shutters homepage