Review: ‘Brave New World’

Dawn King’s adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s classic text Brave New World, running at the Oxford Playhouse this week, revolves around a society based on emotional conditioning, social engineering, and subliminal advertising. Sound familiar?

Brave New World opened with the audience being directly addressed as ‘Alphas’ and ‘Betas’; in an instant, we were absorbed into the onstage hierarchies by the very act of taking our seats. We sat, swallowed by the darkness of the Playhouse, lit only by the projections of dividing cells on the sheer screens, and the spotlights, which illuminated foetuses growing steadily under controlled conditions.

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The Director of this intricate genetic engineering scheme gave us, the new trainees, a guided tour of his factory of synchronised pipette-dippers. These identikit scientists were robotically generating a new set of worker bees in front of our eyes. We had unwittingly been appointed to this highly unethical training scheme, on a day where prenatal genetic screening was once again in the headlines. It is notable that the male technicians were developing the genes of specific castes of embryos, whilst the female technicians oversaw the gestation of the foetuses in a warm, red room. The babies were due to be delivered into a life of strict conditioning, aversion therapy, and even ‘erotic education’, in order to normalise the concept of universal promiscuity. It’s a world where you can ‘have’ anyone, monogamy is an archaic idea, and no one truly has anyone to themselves.

The Director ominously gestured to a brutal life that, unfortunately, still existed outside of this cool, sharp, logical world. Instead of being segregated into castes and roles, certain diseased factions of people were allowed to run amok on reservations, strangely forming themselves into groups like families and religions. ‘It’s disgusting,’ he spat. These reservations formed a sharp contrast to the neon lights, UV drinks, and synthesised food served in the clubs and offices of the Director’s world, all of which evoked the corporate ‘work hard, play hard’ environments prevalent in today’s London.

This is a world where everyone is addicted to Soma, a drug that creates an intense sensation of euphoria, and also provides an emotional crutch in the face of negativity. Sadness and badness are no longer permitted. There are a number of potential Soma manifestations in our lives today – caffeine, Facebook, money, to name a few. This metaphor has been interpreted in so many ways by the societies who have heralded Huxley’s text since pre-World War II, so it’s futile to suggest that it portends any one specific solace. It is, however, a useful instrument for provoking spectator consideration of what our own individual addictions are. John, the central, ‘savage’ character, who was not born into a life dependent on Soma, asks Lenina as she takes her hundredth dose of the day: ‘How do you know what you’re really feeling?’

Soon we were hurtled into the hostile environment of the brutal, opposing societal structure of The Reservation. Through a haze of pounding drums and tribal war dances, we witnessed a bucket ritual; it wasn’t clear if the subject was being murdered or baptised. Their unhappiness, we were warned, is potentially contagious.

The ‘destabilising’ texts of William Shakespeare have been banned in the futuristic world of genetic engineering (there is ‘no point wasting time on the arts – people are meant for productive careers’), but not in that of the savages. A special mention goes to William Postlethwaite for his portrayal of John Savage, with his ability to relay vast swathes of intricate verse interwoven with some stilted and infantile vocabulary, and particularly for his moments of great pain towards the end of the performance. It’s a very minor criticism, but for a man who has supposedly adopted Shakespeare as part of his own natural language development, these sections of text were relayed slightly too performatively – I don’t know if John Savage is necessarily an ‘actor-type’ simply because he knows a great deal of The Tempest by heart. But overall, his was a powerful portrayal of a man with complex ideas about society embedded in straightforward values, and his manner of speaking reflected this beautifully.

Gruffudd Glyn also performed an excellent interpretation of protagonist Bernard Marx, a man unexpectedly born into the role of an ‘Alpha’, but dogged by the idea that it’s a caste in which he doesn’t quite belong. Olivia Morgan completed the central triumvirate of confusing sexual attraction as Lenina, although she didn’t quite perform as robotically or emotively as the conflicting (and difficult) role demands.

The soundtrack by These New Puritans provided a pulsating crush of industrial techno, creating an oppressive, busy atmosphere during scene changes and moments of heightened euphoria and despair. The lighting needed fine-tuning at times, but this is perhaps to be expected on the first night in a new theatre for a touring company. There were moments when the placement of certain actors blocked the spotlights casting shadows over the faces of others, making it difficult to discern their expressions, and for a good few minutes there was a strong spotlight on the audience, which left spectators feeling more distracted than exposed.

Quibbles aside, Dawn King’s expertly constructed adaptation successfully builds bridges between Huxley’s text and the contemporary stage; the world of the new-age castes and that of the savages; the worlds depicted on stage and the one in which we exist today. We currently live in a strange combination of such extremes, so both worlds were simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar, a Freudian valley of the uncanny. Our lives are dictated by capitalist motivations to succeed and earn cash, and to spend that cash on stimulants of various sorts, whilst the headlines are dominated by the savageries of war and poverty. When Brave New World had ended, I left the theatre feeling that the production was extremely worthwhile, and all the more grateful for the right to be unhappy.

Justine Malone

‘Brave New World’ runs at the Oxford Playhouse until Saturday 10th October; more information and ticket sales can be found here.

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