“We sacrificed high art for world peace. I think it’s a fair trade.” So speaks Margaret Mond, a regional controller of Western Europe presiding over the British Isles, explaining ideas she has raised earlier in the evening when she described “the horror from which we have freed ourselves,” a world population of seven billion fighting for resources, fighting over beliefs, fighting over anything.
How was this stable and happy population achieved? There were sacrifices, but she believes it to be an equitable trade, even if in eliminating hate it was realised that love also had to be abandoned. In its place there are the endless possibilites of a population where stable relationships are frowned upon and promiscuity is actively encouraged, so long as it is within one’s own caste, or at most between the ruling alphas and a slightly inferior beta, but with all giving themselves to the blissful oblivion of soma.
“Monogamy and exclusivity promote strong emotions,” and this leads to turmoil, to instability in a system which has been carefully designed and manipulated to endure, the upper classes consuming, the lower classes, the deltas and epsilons, confined to menial work, physically and mentally retarded duration gestation, but with all classes conditioned through emotional engineering and aversion therapy.
If this sounds like a lot of background for a two hour play, an overwhelming amount of exposition for an audience to grasp, that’s because it is. Adapted by Dawn King from Aldous Huxley’s novel, almost the entirety of the first act is less characters interacting and more bullet points issued in machine gun dialogue from multiple characters but principally Thomas, director of the London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre (James Howard) and Controller Mond (Sophie Ward).
Working in the Fertilisation Room is Lenina (Olivia Morgan), heavily favoured by Henry (David Burnett) but who has agreed to go on a date with Bernard (Gruffudd Glyn), designated an alpha but mocked by his peers who feel he doesn’t quite make the grade. A solitary man in a society built on conformity, he wishes to take her to the Savage Reservation to experience the primitives who live there, but what they find there has repercussions deep into the upper strata of their constructed society.
With a bold staging upon a modular set on various levels enhanced by vivid lighting, multiple LED screens showing looped animations, had director James Dacre invested as much time coaching his ensemble as has been spent crafting the admittedly stunning appearance of the play this would be a vastly superior production of a fascinating and complex novel which has, if anything, grown more timely in the eight decades since first publication.
Instead, with so much information to impart the focus of the actors is strictly on diction and enunciation, the mechanical performers furiously explaining things as they flap their hands, the constant set changes accompanied by overloud and overdramatic music seeming almost purposefully disruptive and consuming time which would better spent allowing the actors to breathe.
If none of the cast are particularly good it is because they have been done no favours by either Dacre or King’s script, the heavy handed end-of-act break revelation almost demanding a EastEnders drumroll. Only in the projected filmed insert of his report does Bernard come alive, indicating that it is not acting under the influence of soma which holds them back, for equally the soma free “savage” John (William Postlethwaite) substitutes volume for emotion as he bellows out Shakespeare.
Unfortunately, for all their sound and fury the inhabitants of this brave new world signify too little, their unfulfilled potential having been squandered in the bombast of the presentation, demanding attention when an honestly whispered plea would carry more weight. Within this there is an astonishing show waiting to happen; whether it actually will is uncertain.