Four Seven Two’s production of Brave New World begins and ends with a tree. In the beginning the tree is illuminated — the white silhouetted branches provide a visual centre to the set, and a canvas for Seb Dows-Miller’s projections as the futuristic tones of John Paul’s sound design plays. When the tree first pulses with blue light, it suggests the tree of life. But as the play progresses, the tree comes to symbolise the tree of knowledge. In the final, disturbing stage image, a noose swings from the tree’s branches — John, the ‘noble savage’ who is introduced partway through the story, hangs himself from the tree after being corrupted by his encounter with ‘civilisation’. The tree is therefore both the literal pomegranate tree to which the characters refer, and a metaphor that exceeds the character’s world. The depth of thought that has gone into this one element is typical of the production as a whole.
Dramatic adaptations of novels face the challenge of what to do with exposition. Brave New World in particular poses the problem of having a very specific, detailed world, which can be unconvincing when rendered onstage. However Miranda Mackay’s supple new version never feels heavy handed, even though there is quite a lot of plot to get through. This lithe adaptation is complemented by a minimal set, which effectively creates a sense of the play’s dystopian world through a combination of video design, music, and choric work.
Director Georgie Botham’s vision for this adaptation is certainly ambitious, with both a new adaptation and new incidental music written specifically for this production. The staging has a heavy emphasis on ensemble work, which makes perfect sense here given that citizens of the World State are taught to value the collective far beyond the individual. The chorus embodies everything from children to lab scientists to state sponsored orgy participants. They move robotically at the start and end of their shifts while they are waiting for their government issue drug, soma, aptly conveying the conformity demanded by the regime. A beautiful theatrical moment is created when each member of the chorus takes the limb of a baby doll, making the baby come alive. This is a minor moment in the play, used aesthetically to illustrate how the state makes its test-tube babies, but is repeated (perhaps a little self-indulgently) when John is shown round the Hatchery. The style of these choric sections is larger than life, approaching (but not quite reaching) clowning. (One of the chorus members, Esme Sanders, has the most amazing facial expressions I’ve ever seen onstage). However, the chorus’s over-exaggerated performance style, like their hysterical laughter at anyone who seems different, becomes grating. The choreography is disappointing; it seems more of a pastiche of a Frantic Assembly piece than an attempt to find an original way of moving that works for this production.
Thanks to the contrast in style with the chorus scenes, the naturalistic moments between the main characters Lenina (Amelia Holt) and Bernard (Patrick Orme) seem refreshingly, tenderly human. In the second half of the play, Lucy Miles gives an outstanding performance as John, the ‘noble savage’ that Bernard and Lenina bring back from their trip to the ‘Reserve’ beyond ‘civilisation’. Miles’s scene where she confronts the Director (played with a chilling calculation by Marcus Knight-Adams) is particularly affecting, making an impassioned case for humans to be allowed to be unhappy.
The use of cross-gender casting for John, Watson and some smaller parts highlights and complicates the gender politics of Huxley’s novel. In the novel, the majority of the main characters were originally men and, although women have more sexual agency in the novel than in the society in the 1930s when Huxley was writing, Lenina is still depicted as the object of Bernard’s affections rather than as a person in her own right. In the book, the sexual promiscuity encouraged in citizens of the World State only extends to heterosexual relations. In Four Seven Two’s production, however, it is unclear whether Botham’s casting choice was intended to make John’s violently negative reaction to physical intimacy with Lenina a reflection on internalised homophobia; the script changes the pronouns to ‘she’, but the name John remains. Botham and Mackay could have considered the implications of this gender switch further, particularly given the historical resonances of ‘savage’ women being displayed for men’s sexual gratification. Bernard’s anthropological, colonialising project imbues the novel with an uncomfortable racial dynamic which this production, with its entirely white cast, does not acknowledge. The decision for Miles to go topless in the final scenes as she whips herself troubled me. On one level the potential for this image to be sexualised rather than being read as John intends — as a religious act of penitence — reflects how John’s behaviour is co-opted by the citizens in the novel for their sexual gratification. But despite its female-led creative team, I did not think the production adequately interrogated the male gaze in its representation of ‘the savage’. The play’s challenge to the gender politics of Huxley’s novel is therefore not as a radical as it could be, and created its own additional problems.
Despite the problems raised by some elements of the production, overall this is an engaging and disturbing take on Huxley’s sci-fi classic, imaginatively conceived and superbly performed.
Brave New World ran at the Keble O’Reilly until Saturday 12th May. More information about Four Seven Two can be found on their Facebook page.