I can’t believe I’ve got to the grand old age of [insert grand old age here] and have not yet read Brave New World, nor seen a film, nor a TV adaptation of it. And me an English student. It’s a disgrace. I do remember school friends devouring it, saying it was the best thing since sliced bread, but at the time I was too into my drama to lower myself to the level of mere novels. How wrong was I?
So I was very excited at the prospect of seeing James Dacre’s production at the Royal and Derngate, because I was going to fill in a major gap in my general knowledge. I also suspected it would be stunningly good. Mrs Chrisparkle had also never read the book, so like a pair of innocents we settled down in the front stalls of the Royal. There was a noticeable buzz about the place – people were clearly very curious to see how this dramatisation would work.
I’m sure you know the story, but I’ll give you a quick rundown. Set some time in the future, mankind has been streamed into five castes – alpha to epsilon – and people are no longer simply born, they are created in laboratories, hatched and decanted, then subjected to conditioning education in order to achieve a sort of mindless positivity about well-ordered life. There are no families, no close relationships – people have sex willy-nilly with whoever they want, as much as possible, because everyone belongs to everyone. Alphas take the best jobs, betas support them; gammas, deltas and epsilons are left to do the menial work, but they’re all perfectly content with their lot as they have been programmed to do so. No books, no religion, no creative thought; they’ve all been banned. Instead, you work, you take soma (a hallucinogenic drug), you go on dates. One such date is the holiday that Bernard Marx, an alpha scientist who doesn’t seem quite as alpha as he could be, takes Lenina, a beta nurse at the London Hatchery, to a Savage Reservation. These are parts of the world where this perfect order hasn’t reached, and where savages that live there lead impoverished, blighted lives. There they meet Linda, an older woman who once worked at the Hatchery, but who got left behind on a visit to the Reservation, and John, her literary-minded son. Bernard takes them back to London for research purposes, but their return leads to disaster all round. And if you want to know how it all develops and resolves itself, you’ll just have to see the play.
Aldous Huxley wrote the book in the early 1930s but its dystopian vision is still enormously relevant today. Within a few minutes of the play starting, Mrs C was guffawing at the Brave New Worldisms that she could recognise in the modern day business environment. Its portrayal of two life-systems that are at complete odds with each other can be translated into present day political, philosophical or moral systems; in fact almost any situation where you have rivalries and where people are confronted with the opposite behavioural patterns. Brave New World beautifully highlights individual hypocrisies of the people who attain high rank – very much like the works of George Orwell with whom Huxley is frequently compared – and the petty arguments between those who are clambering up the ladder to supposed greatness. But its most telling element is the growing, contrasting relationship between the creative, poetic savage John, whose ability to speak is cloaked in his knowledge of Shakespeare, and the artless, conformist Lenina, for whom the meaningless shag is the epitome of recreational achievement.
Naomi Dawson’s comfortless sets emphasise the spiritual emptiness of this new World order, with powerful use of video screens and artificial colour to create a fake sense of life and excitement. Colour is just one of the conditioning tools; the alpha men always wear grey and white whilst the beta women are always in purple and puce. The original music is by These New Puritans, an Essex band whose music, according to the programme, “ranges from the intimate to the expansive, from industrial to orchestral”. However you categorise it, their music is highly impactful, both uplifting and eerie, and really adds to the atmosphere of the production. Not having read the book, I can’t tell how faithful Dawn King’s adaptation to the original is, but it’s a compelling script that had us riveted from the start. Wryly amusing, sometimes horrifying, frequently uncomfortable, I loved how it didn’t shy away from showing us the grim horror of the aversion therapy techniques for those whose conditioning hasn’t quite succeeded; and how it took the subject of erotic play amongst children as being something to be encouraged, in order better to fit them for a subsequent life of promiscuity. In our world, where paedophilia seems to play a part in almost daily news coverage, this may feel quite a challenge to the audience.
The cast of ten form a superb ensemble – there are some wonderful group scenes where conversations take place intermittently whilst the non-participants stand frozen in time – but each cast member also shines individually in their own roles. Gruffudd Glyn is excellent as Bernard, the picked-on misfit alpha, struggling to fit in with the social norms required of him, but nevertheless keen to succeed despite his ineptitude. With his rise in celebrity status through his association with John comes increased self-confidence which Mr Glyn conveys with a real sense of joy. Yet when it ebbs away, as John refuses to play the celebrity game, and with the constant threat of being exiled to an island, Mr Glyn depicts the character’s knife-edge existence with barely concealed fear and emotional rawness. Olivia Morgan as Lenina absolutely gets the character’s beta status – enthusiastic, compliant, intent on her own ambitions and pleasure, selfish, and essentially one-dimensional. It’s a very clever performance. I really liked James Howard as Thomas the Director, full of apparent alpha leadership charisma, the corporate lame duck who reels off the right words but who will eventually be hoist by his own petard, even though that phrase would be banned in the new World order – a nice mixture of bully and sham. Sophie Ward gives a classy, authoritative performance as Controller Margaret Mond – the character is Mustapha in the original I understand, but making the Big Boss a woman is very 21st century and gives it extra bite. Dressed in grey like the men, and giving the impression of caring and enabling her team to do well, she is essentially a manipulating hypocrite who glories in the power she wields, and Ms Ward conveys this with icy assurance.
Abigail McKern is superb, as always, as Linda, the much-maligned and helpless mother in a world that dare not speak that name, providing a recognisable trace of the humanity of real life, rather than the warped one of the new World order. David Burnett is excellent as the bright and bumptious Henry, alpha through and through, embodying the new values of this valueless society. Scott Karim plays Bernard’s friend Helmholtz, subtly expressing his anxiety at also not fitting in; when he declaims his self-written poem there’s a light-bulb moment where you can see his sudden, moving, self-realisation that this is what life ought to be like. Samantha Pearl is great as Lenina’s friend and confidante Polly, and I also really liked her as the Headmistress of Eton – haven’t times changed. Theo Ogundipe as Benito is another stalwart of the new order, he’s obviously going to be next in command under Henry; and I also enjoyed his characterisation of the “guardian” of the Reservation, giving travel tips and inoculations to Bernard and Lenina as if he were some kind of Huxleyesque Club 18-30 rep.
But it is the character of John the Savage, and the performance of William Postlethwaite that shines. The character stands out as a beacon of moral decency and goodness, partly because he belongs to a world that we recognise and want to cling on to, and partly because of his firm reliance on the Bard to say the right thing. The Shakespearean quotes are an absolute joy, showing a determination to hang on to a world where love and creativity are seen as positive contributions. John is an idealistic figure, but very human too; willing to learn and to improve but unwilling to give up the things he holds dear as truth. Mr Postlethwaite is totally convincing throughout as the noble fish out of water, a lost Everyman character, and, with a great stage presence, I’m sure he’s going to be One To Watch.
Both Mrs C and I were gripped from the opening scene, spent the interval in open mouthed appreciation of what we’d already seen, and walked home at the end dumbstruck with enjoyment. A riveting story, crackingly well told, superbly acted, vividly depicted. Its run at the Royal and Derngate lasts until September 26th, but afterwards you can catch it at Edinburgh, Oxford, Nottingham, Cheltenham, Wolverhampton, Darlington, Blackpool and Bradford up until December 5th. It’s certainly inspired me to read the book, and a copy is already winging its way to me courtesy of those tax-dodgers at Amazon. And you can discover much more about the production at the TheatreCloud website. A co-production with Touring Consortium Theatre, this is, quite simply, one of the best productions I’ve ever seen.