Although the issues raised in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” were a discussion group at school one day (not exactly yesterday), the book is not something that I have actually read (unlike my companion to the theatre tonight who has read it several times), so in a way, this makes it easier for me to treat this new adaptation by Dawn King on its own merits.
That is really the first thing about this work. Although we are dealing with some of the issues raised in the original novel, this is a new work looking at things with 21st century eyes, and wisely pretty much leaving alone the technology imagined as that so quickly catches up with any work of science fiction, often overtaking it and often simply proving it wrong. Instead this work focuses on some of the social issues imagined in the original work from the 1930s.
There is also original music for “Brave New World” from These New Puritans and that alone is worth going to hear in its own right. It is good to hear original music being used for new work on stage (just adapting existing work to fit a piece is sometimes far easier to do) as that alone indicates that someone has imagined something new and used it with great care to enhance the story.
Our basic story line revolves around genetic engineering to create an elite minority class and a far larger workers class. Here the genetic engineering is at a level that pre-determines everything –intelligence (far less for workers), physical attributes, happiness, contentment and many other things. What genetic engineering does not manage, careful “conditioning” from laboratory birth will. Lower social classes are even conditioned to be subservient to high ranking “Alphas” solely by recognising their attributes. Some lower worker classes are also created by a process that produces multiple identical clones all genetically specific to their task.
A few things connect all classes though. The in-built desire to consume commercial goods to keep the World Economy moving and a complete reliance on the social recreational drug Soma.
In this brave new world, everyone is designed to be happy with everything and their place. Family units, religion and personal attachments to people no longer exist. “Everyone belongs to Everyone Else” we are told and sex is completely casual and uncommitted (often with the help of Soma).
Our main characters here are all Alpha and Beta members of society involved at some level in the genetic and educational manipulation of all the classes of their closed society. These include Henry (David Burnett), Bernard Marx (Gruffudd Glyn), Thomas the Director (James Howard), Helmholtz Watson (Scott Karim) Lenina (Olivia Morgan) and Polly (Samantha Pearl). Out of everyone here, it is Bernard Marx who does not fit in. He is an Alpha+, but is not fully accepted by his other Alphas and Betas as he does not share their near perfect physical attributes. The lower casts do not recognise him either and give him his due respect. Some people say that his problems are caused by a contaminated blood supply at his embryonic stage. Bernard’s not fitting into his ideal place in society is also becoming a problem, along with Helmholtz who is questioning the endless happiness around him.
Outside of this Utopia, “savages” live on controlled reservations and when Bernard gets permission to visit the reservation with Lenina he finds a former Beta called Linda (Abigail McKern) and her adult son John (William Postlethwaite). Linda has given birth to John by the now looked on appalling circumstances called “natural birth”. Both are brought back to civilisation and John becomes a reluctant media star known as “John the Savage”.
The one big deviation from the original source material is making the World Director Margaret Mond (Sophie Ward) female. This does give the whole work a more feminist approach, but at times it just does not seem to work that well – particularly as the only people who seem to be rebelling against the world around them are male. All the females seem pretty content with their lot.
Adapting a work like this is always going to be difficult due to the difference between book and theatre, and the work (both old and new versions) raises so many questions that require serious thought to their answers that the best you can really do in the time available is skim over them at best.
Performance wise, there is not really any one person to pick out here as everyone fits well into their characters. The fact that in this world, emotion has pretty much been removed from daily life means that the actors get little opportunity to show any either. This does change a little in Act Two when John the Savage, who has not undergone proper emotional education, questions everything around him as well as displaying emotional attachment to his mother. John (William Postlethwaite) is really the only character here given the chance to give any level of emotional performance on stage. Lenina, as a result of her interaction with John, does slowly get to develop some emotions too. In pretty much any other work this lack of emotion would be a problem, but here it is correct for the source material.
This is a complete work though, and by that I mean new music, a new look at the original source and also good sets (Naomi Dawson), Lighting (Colin Grenfell), Sound (George Dennis) and Video (Keith Skretch). Director James Dacre and adaptor Dawn King have done a fine job bringing all these elements together.
There are topics raised here that you could spend a lot of time alone discussing the rights and wrongs of - such as the erotic education of children in their emotional development classes to prepare them for an emotionally disconnected “everyone belongs to everyone else” adulthood, but there just is neither time nor space here to do that.
If this production does anything, it should make you stop and think because in many cases this “Brave New World” is already here. And has been for some time. We already have a chosen technological elite served by the worker masses and their place in society is often conditioned from the moment they enter their educational system (often a far different one from the elite).
Review by Tom King