In the London Hatchery, warm red light glows over the rows of glass jars that contain the embryos of the next carefully-graded generation of citizens.
The year is 2540, the place is the affluent, peaceful and tightly-controlled World State which has replaced the warring nations of the earth; a place where the passions of parenthood and reproduction have been ruled out of order, where sex is ubiquitous and pain-free, and where the answer to any negative emotion is to pop a quick dose of “soma”, the World State’s universal feel-good drug.
It’s a paradox, about Aldous Huxley’s great 1931 novel Brave New World, that that central image of the London Hatchery is the one that has both happened, and not happened. We can now grow and manipulate embryos in jars; but instead of turning away from physical parenthood in revulsion, we increasingly tend to idealise it, as the main meaning of life.
In every other way, though, Huxley’s novel is frighteningly prescient, predicting the culture of screen-driven mood and mind control in which we now live, the meaninglessness of purely recreational sex, the growing rigid inequality between classes; and all of this is captured with great energy and some passion in the Touring Consortium’s new stage version, created at the Royal & Derngate in Northampton by writer Dawn King, director James Dacre, and a talented cast of ten.
As theatre experiences go, this Brave New World has a slightly filmic quality; with a powerful ambient score by band These New Puritans, and spectacular design and lighting by Naomi Dawson and Colin Grenfell, it tends to display the story to the audience, rather than telling it to them directly.
If the style of the production limits the range of the acting, though, there’s still some fine, elegant work from Sophie Ward, as the “western controller”, and from Olivia Morgan as Lenina, the story’s compliant but increasingly troubled heroine. And William Postlethwaite provides a memorably tormented, erotic and disruptive presence as John The Savage: the man from a primitive place beyond the pale who still believes in sin and death, and whose bursts of Shakespearean poetry, learned from an old book, remind us not only of the spiritual poverty of a civilisation that has “traded high art for world peace”, but of the kind of language that forces theatre to turn out towards the audience, rather than simply presenting its own brave new world, largely impervious to our presence.
King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, final performances today.