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Review: Brave New World @ The Oxford Playhouse

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub

An end to unhappiness, crime, and poverty. Harmless, bliss-inducing drugs. Casual, no-strings-attached sex. What’s not to like about the dystopian (or should that be utopian) future of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World? In Dawn King’s new adaptation of Huxley’s 1931 novel, jointly produced here by Touring Consortium and Northampton’s Royal & Derngate, the audience is made to ponder exactly this.

There is a lot to be said in favour of this adaptation. It is snappy, incisive, and manages to evoke Huxley’s World State well in all its sterilised, sexualised promise; but it is also far too fragmented, far too reliant on its technical innovation, and far too proud of its somewhat simplified central dilemma to make it a particularly memorable production.

Gruffudd Glyn is Bernard Marx, a nervous psychologist at the London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre: an outsider in a world where social participation is mandatory and any strong emotion is habitually repressed. William Postlethwaite is John, the God-fearing, Shakespeare-quoting savage whom Bernard rescues from the primitive ‘reserve’ and brings back to ‘civilisation’, and whose refusal to allow himself to be enslaved by contentment wreaks havoc.

Glyn is suitably anxious as Bernard; his transition from discontented nobody to spineless somebody is nicely contrived. Postlethwaite is brooding enough as John also, although his exasperation too frequently expresses itself in shouty confrontation. Elsewhere, Olivia Morgan plays a convincingly conflicted Lenina, and there are enjoyable performances from the rest of the cast as mindless servants to the all-powerful World State.

But it is the production’s design, both visual and audio, that truly impresses. A sliding, swivelling mixture of flickering screens and test-tubes is complimented well by original music composed by The New Puritans, a progressive, multi-genre band from Essex. Their trippy electronic sound is a perfect reflection of the clinical, emotionless Brave New World.

This striking quality in design is both a blessing and a curse, however, as it frequently feels as though style has been prioritised over content. Noise-filled, visual-filled interludes are used to the point of saturation and, although this lends the piece pace, it detracts enormously from any emotional engagement the audience might feel.

One wonders whether this may have been director James Dacre’s intention – treating the audience like citizens in Huxley’s World State, deprived of meaningful feeling – but the losses of such a decision surely outweigh the gains. Attachment to characters is key, but the production is too disjointed to allow this.

Dacre’s Brave New World is similarly heavy-handed with its moral content. The beauty of Huxley’s novel is in its ambiguity, in its bold refusal to ultimately condemn totalitarianism. With this new adaptation, there is undoubtedly a seductive quality to the easy, promiscuous lives of Bernard’s friends and co-workers, but there is also a clear criticism of it. John the Savage is blatantly the good guy, and everyone else – with a few exceptions – is either deluded or evil or both. The championing of the individual over the collective, of the pursuit of truth over the pursuit of happiness, is too obvious. This is a production that makes the audience’s mind up for it.

‘Relevant’ is a word too lightly used in praise of new productions. This adaptation of Brave New World is apparently supposed to provide a new perspective on our rapidly developing world, but in reality, it is too black-and-white, too concerned with appearance rather than content, and too didactic to bear any particular relevance at all.

2/5

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