Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Brave New World - Dystopia and Science-Fiction Theatre Now

The spacious bar area of the Royal & Derngate Theatre in Northampton doesn't look much like a teenage wasteland. At the first night post-show party for the theatre's co-production with The Touring
Consortium  of Brave New World, Dawn King's adaptation of Aldous Huxley's
increasingly recognisable dystopian novel, it's the sounds of Baba O'Riley, The
Who's damning statement on a strung-out, acid-fried Woodstock generation that
underscores the chit-chat beside the drinks table. It's appearance is probably
an accident, but, given Huxley's prophetic study of a society numbed into
submission by a pill called Soma, and where sexual promiscuity is encouraged to
the point that no one feels a thing, Pete Townshend's counterblast to the summer
of love sounds oddly appropriate.

The play itself, as directed by Royal & Derngate artistic director James Dacre, is as state of the art as it gets, a fast-moving voyage through a world where a medically bred elite call the shots
and where those who attempt to live free are treated like freaks. All of which
was already there in Huxley's novel, written in 1931, and which was a gift for
King.

“It  appealed to me immediately,” she says, “because one of the many
things I like is science fiction. Not only is this a classic piece of science
fiction, but in terms of doing an adaptation it's really good material, though
it's also very challenging. It's got lots of plot, and there's all these
concepts about how the future is. Then, going back and re reading the book, I
was really surprised about how much of it seemed to be about my life, and that's
what I wanted to bring to it, this idea that it's about our life now.”

Dacre and King's take on Brave New World arrives at a time when dystopian worlds are
being shown onstage with increasing regularity. Brave New World follows
Headlong's similarly hi-tech take on George Orwell's 1984, while a new
production taken from William Golding's novel, Lord of the Flies, will shortly
tour to Scotland. With this in mind, for King at least, the future has already
arrived, and it's not very pretty.

“We live in really dystopian times,” King observes. “You only have to open up the paper and it reads like science-fiction. There's a huge tension between my life, and that I can be having a ridiculous
conversation about wanting some silver trainers or something, and then watching
or reading about people dying trying to get here.

“There's so much money floating around, but we still seemingly can't do anything to resolve any
of these things. There's also this vast spectre of climate change, which
everyone knows about, and I think does affect people's moods in a way that I
think does make them feel a little bit dystopian.”

For Dacre, how peoplereact to dystopian times is key to Huxley's entire outlook on how we may or may not live now.

“I think something that distinguishes Brave New World and
Huxley from writers like Orwell, Asimov, Atwood and HG Wells and others from
that dystopian canon is that it's very open-armed,” Dacre points out. “There's a
great sense of character, humanity and pathos in the book, but I also I think
it's uniquely interested in how science, commerce, technology and politics will
affect human behaviour in the future. Huxley was less interested in how the
world might look than he was in how any changes that happen in all those spheres
might change how we relate to one another.”

In terms of science-fiction's relationship with theatre, King points out as well how she believes that
“theatre culture's changing a bit. Science-fiction isn't done that much onstage,
but now there are science-fiction plays that are being done at the Royal Court
or in the West end in a way that wasn't happening before, and I find that really
exciting.”

Northampton is no stranger to science-fiction. Veteran fantasy and
science-fiction comic book writer and cultural alchemist Alan Moore lives just
around the corner from the Royal & Derngate in a city he recently described as
“absolutely average,” but also a “very unusual town.”

The latter certainly tallies with the thinking of the protagonists of Energy in Northampton, a sci-fi
synth-pop single released by Northampton Development corporation way back in
1980. The song, which was picked up by Radio 1 alternative music icon John Peel,
tells the story of an alien race looking for a place to build a new home that
offers them a bright new  future, with Northampton a somewhat less than obvious
choice.

Such jaunty retro stylings are light years away from These New
Puritans' soundtrack for Brave New World, awash as it is with stentorian
electronic stylings that lend it atmosphere and pulse. For These New Puritans
composer and songwriter Jack Barnett, who since 2006 has led his band through
three hip hop, electronica and contemporary classical inspired albums, composing
for theatre for the first time was a liberation.

“I didn't know much about theatre,” Barnett  says, “but we've been asked to do stuff like this several
times before, and after a while you feel you should stop saying no. But it was
great fun to do. I'd read the book when I was about sixteen, and I re-read it,
and we talked about what to leave in and what to leave out, because there's so
many different ideas in it. Then working on the music was very different for me.
I have a tendency to write too much stuff and have to edit it down, but this
process made a virtue of that, and I was able to step outside of myself, and
only when you do that do you find out what your limits are. It made me write in
a different way, and gave me a different impetus to write.”

Such artistic emancipation may go against the grain of Brave New World's over-ridingly bleak
world-view, but Dacre sees the story itself as something similarly liberating.

“Huxley delights in contradictions,” Dacre says, “and that allows
different arguments and ideas to be discussed in a way that enables the reader
to make up their own mind. In a world where we're bombarded by social media and
stimuli of all kinds, that’s something we hope can give theatre audiences the
space to do that.”

Brave New World, Kings Theatre, Edinburgh, September 29-October 3.www.edtheatres.com


The Herald, September 22nd 2015.
ends

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