James Dacre has built a reputation for distinctive, innovative staging, and this new adaptation of Brave New World is no exception.
How did I miss this when I put together my autumn recommendations? James Dacre, artistic director of the Royal and Derngate, has impressed me two years running: first in 2013 directing The Thrill of Love for the New Vic, and then Cat on a Hit Tin Roof for a joint production with Northern Stage. Only problem is that my hopping from theatre company to theatre company, it’s easy to miss where he’s directing next. This time, he’s come to the north-east as a joint production with Touring Consortium Theatre Company (in this case, touring to Darlington Civic Theatre). But it doesn’t matter who the producing company is, only that he’s directing. And this time, with a new adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s classic Brave New World, his distinctive style shines through again.
Brave New World is one of of many famous stories of dystopian futures. But whilst books such as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm had worlds that relied on crushing despotism, this was more passive and cunning method of subjugation, relying heavily on distractions and the suppression of any real emotion. Thank goodness it’s only a story, because the sinister means used include conditioning humankind to engage in meaningless casual sex, a terrifying prospect that strikes fear into the hearts of all- … okay, bad example. All right, they also subjugate humankind by banning texts that might induce too much emotion, so Shakespeare’s out the window – nope, still not getting the point across, am I? No Shakespeare, but everyone gets laid. Look, just take my word for it, it’s dystopian.
Anyway, in this world, humans are selectively bred into five castes in a strict heirachy. Strangely enough, parallels still emerge with our world. The lower orders seem to be distracted from their crappy working conditions with some sort of futurist equivalent of Jeremy Kyle, whilst at the other end, the “alphas” who are in charge of everything usually seem to end up as insufferably smug pricks. Whilst for the “betas”, the humans destined for middle management, there’s a delicate balance of intelligence: too stupid and they can’t do the job, and too intelligent and they might get the idea they’d do a better job than the people in charge (and all the civil servants in the audience roll their eyes). But try as they might, some the alphas and betas in this story just won’t behave the way they’re bred to – some get too attracted to one particular person, some like to write poetry that’s not frivolous, and even some people high up have their secrets.
The balance is upset when an alpha and a beta travel to a “reservation” – an area where humans are left in their primitive unaltered state in the name of scientific research – after all, that’s the only place you can see archaic concepts such as families. There they meet a man descended from their world. Having never fit in with the savages of the reservation (he only gets to read Shakespeare because no-one sees the point in it), he and his mother travel back to civilisation, and then things start to get messy. But this is not a story where the whole thing unravels and an autocratic regime collapses, nor is it a story where the autocratic regime brutally cracks down on all dissent. The cracks were already there before, and the cracks are there just a little bit deeper afterwards, and stage adapter Dawn King does a fine just of perfectly understating the flaws in the system that might one day bring it down.
And I could go on. Brave New World is a masterpiece where the subtleties of human emotion still shape a story in a world designed to eliminate it. This adaptation is very much a collaboration of Dawn King as writer, James Dacre as director and music from These New Puritans. It’s difficult to pin down exactly who gets credit for what, but as a team they do a good job bring the story to life in a highly-watchable piece. It doesn’t have every last details from the book – no stage adaptation ever does – but it broadly remains loyal to the book and refrains from making crowd-pleasing changes.
Much of the credit, however, has to go to James Dacre, because this production has all his hallmarks. He clearly knows his strengths and knows how to play to his strengths. His distinctive style goes well to dark themes, he keeps the pace going through plays with an episodic structure, and his innovative staging that makes heavy use of lighting and sound always suits whatever plays he chooses to direct. With successes under his belt for a new play, a classic play, and now a new adaptation of a classic book, is there anything James Dacre cannot do? At this rate, we’ll be waiting a long a time for the answer.