King’s Theatre: Tues 29 September – Sat 3 October 2015
Energy and fidelity to the intriguing source material are not enough to distinguish Brave New World at the King’s, in a touring production marred by odd choices and a curious lack of life.
Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel tells of a world divided by genetic design into castes – Alpha, Beta and so on – and controlled by drugs, recreational sex and facile diversions. Into this world comes ‘John the Savage’, an outsider from a reservation, raised on family, religion and Shakespeare – all of which civilisation has banned.
Like many dystopian fantasies, it is as much a blackly comic reflection of the times that produced it as a serious attempt at predicting the future. However, the themes of genetic engineering and of a populace rendered docile by technology and undemanding, stultifying entertainment remain topical. Furthermore, the depiction of a ruling class who are literally born to lead and a large number of ‘others’ in far-off lands regarded as ‘savages’ whose lives (and deaths) can safely be ignored, makes the story all too relevant.
Creating a staging of the book that is absorbing and timely should therefore be shooting into an open goal – which makes the largely flat, uninvolving nature of this production (from the Touring Consortium Theatre Company and the Royal and Derngate, Northampton) all the more disappointing.
As with so many theatrical versions of ‘classic’ novels, adaptor Dawn King seems determined to shoehorn in as much of the narrative into as brief a time as possible. This leads to a parade of short scenes, often dominated by exposition, that detract from the spectacle. The laudable desire for more contemporary relevance that has turned the book’s Controller Mustapha Mond into Margaret should have been carried through further. Instead, the quaintness that so often characterises past visions of the future is too much in evidence.
Mond is subtly played by Sophie Ward in a performance that is in stark contrast to some of the other characters. Perhaps the one-note nature of much of the acting is a deliberate choice, showing the flattened, superficially ‘happy’ lives of a population dependent on the drug Soma to stop them questioning their existence. If this is the case, it succeeds, but at the expense of any possibility of connection between the audience and the characters.
Gruffudd Glyn’s dissatisfied Alpha psychologist Bernard at least has a hangdog humour to him, while Scott Karim’s similarly disappointed would-be writer Helmholtz channels his frustration through a pleasing mixture of Will Self and Eeyore. On the whole, however, the cast are given frustratingly little opportunity to show what they can do.
All of this reinforces the excellent work of William Postlethwaite, whose arrival as ‘savage’ John gives the production a much needed impetus. The energy, humour and emotional truth Postlethwaite brings to the role mark him out as an actor of real promise.
The hit-and-miss nature of the staging suggests that director James Dacre knows what is needed to make the adaptation successful, but has not always achieved it. Much of the action is fascinating, with movement director Eddie Kay deserving of particular praise. However, the banks of video screens seem to be there simply to add a modern gloss and add little visually or narratively.
The depictions of the effects of Soma do not in any way explain its hold over the populace, with sound and lighting predictably used. Similarly, These New Puritans’ music is often intriguing, but confuses volume with power. There is little that is lazy or ill-conceived about the production; it is simply the case that it does not work as well as it should.
There is an obvious paradox in the artistic depiction of a society that has banned all forms of high art on account of their ‘difficult emotional content’. However, just as Godot must show boredom without being boring, so a way must be found to put nuance into these lives. Otherwise it becomes a melodrama, as it sometimes does here. The close of the first half in particular resembles the most unsubtle of soap opera cliffhangers.
Cross-gender casting aside, this is a very useful cribsheet for anyone studying the novel, but as a play in its own right it is underwhelming.
Running time 2 hours 15 mins including interval
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street EH3 9LQ
Tuesday 29 September – Saturday 3 October 2015
Evenings 7:30pm; Matinees Wed and Sat 2:30pm
Details and tickets from: http://www.edtheatres.com/bravenewworld
Background and classroom support: http://touringconsortium.co.uk/show/bravenewworld/
Brave New World on tour:
Tue 29 Sept – Sat 3 Oct 2015
0131 529 6000
Tue 6 – 10 Oct 2015
Tue 13 – Sat 17 Oct 2015
0115 989 5555
Tue 20 – Sat 24 Oct 2015
01242 572 573
Tue 3 – Sat 7 Nov 2015
01902 429 212
Tue 10 – Sat 14 Nov 2015
01325 486 555
Tue 24 – Sat 28 Nov 2015
01253 290 190
Tue 1 – Sat 5 Dec 2015
01274 432 000