Review: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World

Brave New World 164 - William Postlethwaite (John the Savage) and Sophie Ward (Margaret Mond) and me

Brave New World 164 - William Postlethwaite (John the Savage) and Sophie Ward (Margaret Mond) and members of the company - Credit: Archant

O brave new world, / That has such people in ‘t!: Dystopia has never seemed more familiar, says Katie Jarvis

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, a new adaptation by Dawn King, Cheltenham Everyman, Tuesday, October 20-Saturday, October 24

Do you remember? Do you remember reading Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and being paralysed by vicarious fear: fear so strong it emanates from the very pages of the book in your trembling hands; sickening fear gripping Airstrip One (Great Britain, unrecognisable after the ravages of a seemingly perpetual war) in a vice that twists people into ugly shapes. This is a world where thinking for yourself is thoughtcrime; where Newspeak strips words of meaning; where your every action is watched, analysed, and ripe for vicious, cold accusation. Could anything be more terrifying?

And then you read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and realised that it could.

Both visions are brilliant; prescient. But in Orwell’s, there is humanity. Because, if you feel the fear; if you recognise the control; you can fight it.

In Huxley’s, happiness is a far more deadly enemy.

In 2015 – “Facebook will now warn you if a government is hacking your account” – we have Orwell’s Big Brother. But we also have Huxley. The sheer, unalloyed joy of overeating; the ease of under-thinking; Twitter feeds (why read a book if everything you need to know comes in 140-character bursts?); unlimited, unjudged sex; children conceived because everyone has a right to a child; opinion that counts because everyone’s opinion counts (no matter how ill-informed). And alcohol to put everything right. Bliss.

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No wonder playwright Dawn King had little trouble adapting Huxley’s 1931 nightmare vision for a contemporary stage. The wonder, cynics might say, is that we still recognise it as dystopian.

King’s play opens in the sterile environment of the London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre. Sterile in one particular sense. For this laboratory is all about reproduction: choosing the right eggs to create the desired characteristics for the right class of citizen. (How perfect, to ‘birth’ sewage workers with no sense of smell. Or middle management who polish glass ceilings. Everyone’s happy!)

And to think that, centuries ago, embryos developed inside women’s wombs instead of in a perfectly controlled, safe laboratory. Yuk! (Not to mention irresponsible.)

This is a world with the iron control of North Korea, but where everyone thinks they’re starring in Disney’s WALL-E.

And thus we follow various characters in this world: Lenina (Olivia Morgan), who tries her best to sleep with multitudes of men – as per societal norm – but who can’t help falling in love. Bernard Marx (Gruffudd Glyn), a sleep-learning specialist, whom others suspect of receiving blood beneath his caste in an embryo-laboratory mix-up: that might explain his resentful, angry character, so at odds with the grinning masses. (If you do feel stressed, though, there’s always Soma, the must-have hallucinogen for that happy coma.)

And there’s John the Savage (William Postlethwaite), rescued from Malpais, the Savage Reservation, whose wild ways don’t so much threaten as entertain: he is Brave New World’s celebrity-of-the-moment. And he has a weapon with which to fight this half-conscious universe: Shakespeare, for whom tragedy and heartbreak are mightier than the smile.

The problem? Well, the problem is this. There are times when this production seems like a gently satirical schools’ educational programme lurching into the odd impassioned Othello speech. And I have sympathy. There’s a lot to explain about Huxley’s world, especially if you’re talking to an audience somewhat living it.

But it’s too much to expect us to bond emotionally with these figures whose setting has been comprehensively explained, but whose characters are loosely drawn.

The good bits? Strangely, I was entertained; oddly, I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. But intellectually, not emotionally.

What it did, above all, is make me reach for my dusty copy of Huxley’s original. And vow to give up sugar and alcohol once and for all.

The Everyman Theatre is at Regent Street, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL50 1HQ, box office 01242 572573;

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