Brave New World: A Review
I’m currently reading The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, a book which explores how to find happiness within ourselves. In sharp contrast, the characters in Brave New World source happiness externally from a drug called soma. This government prescribed drug masks pain and worries, but, harrowingly, is used to control the citizens of the World State. Peter Bramley of Pants on Fire directs Aldous Huxley’s disturbing dystopian novel, taking on the challenge of setting this future world in the present day inside Liverpool Playhouse Studio.
Adapting this futuristic novel into a play was never going to be easy but Bramley did not let scientific restrictions stand in his way. Using simplicity to their advantage, the designers covered the entire stage in a white canvas and the only props on it were four small square boxes and a large screen in upstage. This bare set reflects the ethos of purity and cleanliness of the World State in its creation of a hierarchical society ranked by caste. Similarly, all of the people in the World State wore white robes to show that they complied to government regulations. This distinguished them from the outcasts of society: The Savages, who wore sand-coloured, ripped rags to represent how they were seen as dirty and uncivilised for believing in monogamy and religion instead.
As mentioned, one of the only large props in the production was a translucent screen. One of its functions was to display video calls of the main character’s communication with Mustapha, the World Controller. However, the most inventive use of it was to portray the act of flying, when main character Bernard Marx travels to the Savage Reservation on a date with Lenina. As they sit down behind the screen, moving clouds are projected in front of them, making it seem like they are really soaring in the sky. Maybe not ultra-high-tech for today’s standards, but scientific elements such as this in the play provided enough scope to envision what Huxley’s Brave New World would actually be like in real life.
Dystopias explore the connection between science and society. The oppressive governments quash love in favour of manufacturing life, hoping that this will bring about cultural development. However, just as Offred longs to be reunited with her husband Luke in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale, Bernard and later, John, wants more than just a physical relationship with Lenina in Brave New World. Taking the adjective straight from the title, author Huxley bravely opens up a discussion on the controversial subjects of sex and sexuality, which Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts‘ MA acting company did not shy away from either. The actors adapt an uneasy “orgy-porgy” scene into a hilarious party, complete with flashing lights and music. Putting on a casual tone when remarking on “having each other”, and excitedly talking about cartridge belts filled with contraceptives effectively made these scenes more amusing… Jokes aside, making private matters a public concern is one serious reversal not to be overlooked as it shows just how oppressive the government is to enforce state activities. In a recent adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, Liverpool University Drama Society really made this manipulation feel like reality. During one scene of the play, the actors stood up in the front row and hurled insults and objects at a screen that projected Big Brother’s opponent on it, Goldstein. By breaking the fourth wall and standing on the same level as the audience, I really felt like I was part of the brainwashed society in that moment.
Whilst most characters in dystopias are indoctrinated, one character in Brave New World particularly fights against the system. John, who is from The World State but has been brought up in the Savage Reservation, hopelessly struggles to retain his individual status from there. In some ways it can be said that he is like a “real-life” Shakespearean tragic hero. John finds similarities between his life and the pitiable lives of Shakespeare’s characters, and he is often quoting about their misfortunes. In particular, the character of Hamlet is made manifest in John who also feels isolated from a corrupted world. However, unlike Hamlet, he does not brood inwardly but openly advocates on important issues to him, from religion to freedom, and reaches boiling point when he bellows and lashes out at a group of people waiting zombie-like in line for their soma drug.
John instead wants suffering, just so he can feel anything in this neutralized world:
“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
Bramley brings his play to a powerful conclusion. In the last few scenes, the audience witnesses one of John’s nightmares which depicts his cycle of torment with the World State. His uneasy relationships with his mother and Lenina are similarly acted out in a disturbing sequence. The excellent choreography carried out by the LIPA actors in this scene, and others, and how they effortlessly made it seem like they were part of an oppressed, conditioned society, altogether made for a worthy tribute to Huxley’s historic novel.