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Should’ve Been More Unfaithful

Kanta Dihal

Brave New World poster

Brave New World
By Dawn King
Dir. James Dacre
UK Tour 4 September – 5 December

Which dystopia came true, George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World? The two dystopic novels present seemingly diametrically opposed bleak visions of the future, and pessimists are often quick to point out similarities to our modern world. Orwell’s world is one of absolute control and surveillance by the state, a vision familiar to those who are forced to apply for biometric residence permits and whose phones are tapped by the NSA. Huxley, on the other hand, describes a world in which everyone is conditioned to mindlessly consume and indulge, a view perhaps even more familiar in the age of Primark and endless film sequels. Yet is Huxley’s 1931 novel truly adaptable to a twenty-first century setting? Touring Consortium Theatre Company proves in a compelling adaptation by Dawn King, directed by James Dacre, that the audiovisual possibilities of the stage are promising means to achieve such a translation. However, the production stays too close to the book for comfort.

As in the novel, the play opens with a group of students being introduced to the facility in which new citizens are created, a convenient introduction to the society as a whole; here, the audience members are the students. This is an easy crowd pleaser: the audience is judged to be a fine sample of Alpha and Beta specimens, meaning that they belong to the high intellectual classes of this world. The audience in Oxford sounded flattered, although this address also feels uncomfortable: there is an assumption that people who go to this play indeed all belong to such a higher class.

The production is especially good at presenting different scenes simultaneously on stage, and seamlessly switching between them. One witnesses a snippet from one conversation, these speakers freeze in mid-action, and the next group continues its conversation, giving a feeling of simultaneity that both manages to be unobtrusive and choreographically impressive. It is in its choreography and use of light and sound that this play fully shines as a twenty-first-century update of Huxley’s novel. The original score by These New Puritans is perfect for the drug-induced orgies the citizens of this world routinely engage in. One almost feels as if techno music and strobe lights were invented for this world: such strictly choreographed yet highly sexually suggestive scenes could as easily appear in a Lady Gaga or Rihanna video.

One aspect of the novel which is translated less successfully to the modern world is the depiction of gender and sexuality relations. The students are first shown the room in which eggs are fertilized by Alpha men, then the room in which embryos are grown by Beta women. The two groups also have different changing rooms – is this because they are Alpha and Beta, or men and women? It seems highly likely that in a world in which “everyone belongs to everyone else”, and in which the family and marriage are no longer considered ‘sacred’ (morally repulsive, in fact), gender differences would no longer matter, and homosexuality would not be repressed. Whereas one would find it unsurprising that homosexuality is not touched upon in Huxley’s novel, the play could have done better in this respect. Homosexual options seem tacked on to the end of lines at the last minute: “There are so many men to enjoy! And women.”

In Huxley’s work, some much-needed perspective is brought to this world by John the Savage (William Postlethwaite), the son of a woman long presumed dead but found alive in a tribe of ‘savages’. King’s adaptation, however, shows that John’s perspective might not bring the same relief to a modern audience. John is appalled at the fact that Lenina (Olivia Morgan) makes sexual advances toward him after a date, and counters the influences of the modern world by quoting from Shakespeare in a stilted manner, which makes the citations sound as strangely out of place to the viewer as they must sound to Bernard and Lenina. However, it is he who manages to show the audience what is lacking in this world, when he grieves over his dead mother. The contrast with Bernard Marx (excellently played by Gruffud Glynn), until then by far the most likeable character, becomes painful to the viewer: Bernard had been clinically observing the interactions between John and his m***** – he will not say the word as it is offensive. The scene finally confronts the fact that so many of the most basic human emotions are lacking from this world: love, empathy, and passion. This is what makes Brave New World a real dystopia to this day: it is not the never-ending availability of lust and pleasure, but the price this world has to pay for it, that sends out a warning even in the twenty-first century.

Kanta Dihal is reading for a DPhil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She is the ORbits Editor at the Oxonian Review.