There can be no greater tribute to the power, insight and depth of a work of literature than that it continues to be relevant and even grows in importance as the years pass, finding new audiences to learn its message; that Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahreneheit 451 with its catalogue of warnings, of totalitarianism, of illiteracy, of complacency, of censorship, of unquestioning obedience remains such a work sixty years after publication is shaming to us all.
Adapted for the stage by Bradbury himself, the text is a concise and streamlined summation of what is perhaps his greatest novel, the story of loyal Fireman Guy Montag who lived by the mantra of his calling, “it was a pleasure to burn,” who one day put down his kerosene and instead picked up that which he was employed to destroy, that most subversive instrument of dissidence and rebellion, and for the first time in his life commenced to read a book.
Presented by ExADUS Theatre Company of Ashby School in Leicestershire, it is a young cast of seven led by Daniel Ambrose-Jones as Montag, Katie Weatherill as his pliant wife Mildred, Alex Lamb as Fire Chief Beatty and Hannah Taylor as Clarisse McClellan, the unorthodox and contrary girl next door who challenges the society which has failed to condition her to obedience.
Opening with the cast assembled on stage holding plain bound books, the passages they read echoing in the small auditorium from Brontë to Bradbury himself, the production acknowledges the digital age as chatter overtakes thought, the formerly clear words overwhelmed by a babble of voices before the Firemen assemble in their ceremonial robes.
Granted authority to do what is wrong they do so joyously, burning Mrs Alice Hudson (John Cooper in one of his roles) and her “two thousand pets,” the books she has hoarded and hidden which must now be put to death. “There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house.”
A frequently performed piece on the Edinburgh Fringe, most notably by New York’s Godlight Theatre Company in 2006 who made superb use of light and sound, it is a strong enough script to overcome the limitations of this more minimalist production, the cast lacking the presence and nuance to fully carry the complexity of the heavy work though all do their best and are certainly adequate.
Portraying a world where ten second soundbites of news are considered hard facts, where theatres and cinemas and anything which encourages discussion are suppressed in favour of the simple and safe alternatives of sport, where women and immigrants are blamed for the ills of society and books burned to control knowledge, Bradbury would be rightfully appalled how close we have come to allowing his fearful speculation to come to pass.
“No one wants to be a rebel any more,” comes the cry. “The people stopped reading of their own accord.” Yet even as these accusations of indifference are recited on stage, across the world there are uprisings across the world, protests and marches and acts of resistance. All that it takes to start a fire is a single spark.