VISIONS FROM 1931 OF A TEST TUBE FUTURE…
Hot on the heels of Headlong’s obliquely brilliant treatment of 1984 comes a rival dystopia: Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1931, eighteen years before Orwell and before the second war: the comparison is fascinating. Orwell saw ordinary people, recognizable but crushed by brutality and surveillance, thoughtcrime punished and history denied by violence. Its science is basic – telescreens, shredded newsprint and photos. Huxley – whose brother Julian was an evolutionary scientist and eugenicist – in envisioning his hyper-controlled society saw the future’s horrors as technological, humanity itself turned into a man-made biological hierarchy from Alpha to Delta. Embryos and infants are conditioned to their destined planned occupations, the freely available “soma” drug, controlled consumerist leisure and universal promiscuity keeps everyone happy and prevents the subversiveness innate in family, intimacy and poetry.
Dawn King’s adaptation, under James Dacre’s stark, tight direction, sticks thrillingly close to Huxley and demonstrates enough recognizable 21c phenomena to bring on nervous laughs (not least, early on, at the Hatchery’s director explaining that the trickiest embryos to condition are Betas, middle managers: because you have to make them efficient but not ambitious to be Alphas). We have IVF now, and a prospect of genetically engineered foetuses; we are moving towards considering Huxley’s brisk “end-of-life facilitators”, and also have a cadre of high-consuming and promiscuous alpha-betas. Some of the skycopter-riding workers on their way to electromagnetic golf or the “Westminster Abbey cabaret” are indistinguishable from modern city traders at play. The scornful writer Helmholtz, bored with writing prolefeed “dramedys” and feelie-movies would be quite at home with the modern screen. We have throwaway clothes, too, and high-consumption leisure: World Controller Mond is female in this adaptation, a scornfully masterful Sophie Ward, and explains that they brought in countryside-aversion conditioning because country walks don’t encourage the buying of enough expensive equipment.
There is a lot of explanation, as in Huxley’s novel, which could have torpedoed it as drama but doesn’t because it remains so creepily fascinating a vision. Skilful robotic ensemble moments upstage hint at the toiling, happily drugged Deltas and the use of sexuality as a bonding, tranquillizing group experience. The story itself concerns Bernard Marx – an Alpha who is chippy because he had some Epsilon blood by mistake (Gruffudd Glyn is perfect, just that bit smaller and geekier than fellow-Alphas like James Howard or David Brunett). He takes Lenina, the pretty Beta, to a “Savage reservation” where unaltered humans live wild tribal lives as a control group.
They bring home John (William Postlethwaite) a noble savage whose mother (this being a dirty word in the test-tube society) was from the manufactured world but got lost and lived on, grey and raddled, in the reserve. John has found an old volume of Shakespeare, and lives by quotations: Huxley, unlike Orwell with his proles, had to telescope the idea of a primitive noble savage with that literary and poetic sensitivity, so he could attack both aspects of the main society – its philistinism and its science. Abigail McKern has great fun as the mother, disgusted with her exile into a primitive world without soma and disposable clothes and where babies come out of the “poor quality storage” of the womb.
But Lenina, unsatisfied by the multiple partners of convention, wants Savage John. Her frank (very modern) advances send him into a frenzy, Hamlet-cum-Romeo, ranting of the rank sweat of an unseamed bed and vowing that she shall not melt his honour into lust. So the second half is darker, more urgent, tragic.
And for all the necessary exposition, it works; Dacre knows how to keep things sharp and tight, and Huxley’s vision still carries the same scorching unease, the same powerful demand for “the right to be unhappy”, to love and yearn and dream and fail .