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“Happiness has got to be paid for”

27 July 2018 | Emily May

With most of the country engrossed in the Handmaid’s Tale, and novels such as 1984 climbing in the Amazon rankings last year after Trump’s inauguration, it’s safe to say dystopian fiction is having a bit of a moment. And, with current news headlines, it’s not hard to understand why. Whilst Orwell’s work might be the most famous dystopia for presenting a harsh, totalitarian regime, its predecessor Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is arguably more indicative of contemporary society, with its shallow consumerism and covert rise to power through brainwashing and perceived happiness. After already staging 1984 at the Oxford Mathematical Institute last year, Creation Theatre have now noticed the relevance of Huxley’s seminal work, and have transformed it into an innovative site specific performance at the Westgate Centre, Oxford.

The Westgate Shopping Centre is unnervingly sleek, glossy, and incongruous with Oxford’s antiquated architecture, and therefore the perfect setting for Huxley’s creepily capitalist society. As you sit down on rotating chairs at the centre of Leiden Square, surrounded by escalators and heavily branded shops, you are handed a pair of headphones to wear for the entirety of the show.

Image Credit: Alex Tester via Twitter
 
Whilst some may argue that listening to synthetically produced noise through a technological device negates the point of live theatre, the use of the headphones in this production is essential to transporting you into the in-human hyper-reality of the story. You are fed a continuous eerie soundscape as well as the actors’ conversations about the Brave New World they inhabit. As they discuss their social conditioning, worship of consumerism, the celebration of promiscuity and hence the rejection of emotional attachment and family values – being born is a dirty word, as now all babies are bottle grown – you almost feel like you are being brainwashed yourself. 
 
On a practical level, the headphones do limit your ability to discern where actors are standing - their voices loud in your ear but their personage far away on a distant escalator - and you may spend a few minutes rotating on your swizzle chair trying to locate where the characters are delivering their prophetic lines from. It’s a shame if you do miss out on the visual element, as the actors’ performances are populated with an array of hand gestures, which appear to be like a form of physical text speak. However, even this issue with the headphones supports the play’s themes, as the use of perception altering technology throughout the performance reflects the dehumanisation of the new society. Very often the actors don’t even communicate face to face, but via a large screen set up in the performance space. With all this mechanical, unnatural interference, your perception is blurred, you have a reduced state of awareness, and one can only compare the feeling to what you might experience if you’d sampled soma, the narcotic delicacy of Brave New World that is taken on a daily basis by inhabitants, to give them, as the original text states “a holiday from the facts”.

Image Credit: Richard Budd

The synthetic, de-sensitized presentation of life is reinforced by the innovative costumes. All the characters are dressed head to toe in sandy beige hues, reflecting the lack of colour, vibrancy and range of emotion in their meaningless “happy” lives. The women wear headpieces made out of bras adding to the wacky, futuristic nature of the production, and every character is adorned with tinted sunglasses, that double up as VR goggles, a chilling reference to developing technology that suggests we are already on our way to a similar situation of events.
 
As if they are shrink wrapped, the costumes are also made up of plastic coverings, so that the characters themselves appear to be consumable products of their mechanically reproduced society. And of course, consumable is the right word. “Everyone belongs to everyone else”, they state as they move from sexual partner to sexual partner in a way that seems grotesque to us. But are we really that far behind? With the growing success of dating apps like Tinder, Grindr and Bumble, aren’t we, like the promiscuous people of Brave New World, placing ourselves on a human conveyer belt and advertising ourselves as mere sexual products?

Image Credit: Richard Budd
 
It is after two of the characters visit an uncivilized reservation in New Mexico – where people are left to grow old, are monogamous and shock horror, give birth to their own children – and return with one of the savages, that things start to go down the pan. John, the Savage, highlights all the inadequacies with “civilization”, the lack of meaning and depth to people’s lives, leading to several mental breakdowns of characters who - to reference cult film The Matrix –metaphorically swallow the red pill and discover the brutal truth of reality, leaving behind the blissful ignorance and illusion of Brave New World’s blue pill. They come to understand what John states in the original text: “I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

Image Credit: Richard Budd
 
It’s slightly disappointing for Brave New World aficionados that some of the famous quotes such as this aren’t utilized in the script – Mustapha Mond’s climactic “Happiness is never grand” speech also would have been a welcome inclusion. However, it is commendable that writer/Director Jonathan Holloway hasn’t relied too heavily upon the original text, truly creating a dramatic adaptation rather than just lifting the speech from the novel. And it’s a good, relatable adaptation. A little too good, and a little too relatable, as it makes us realise that the disturbing “Brave New World” of Huxley’s imagination may not be so distant and dystopian as we’d like to think.
 
Brave New World runs until 11 August at The Westgate Centre, Oxford, OX1 1TR
 
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