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Brave New World at Westgate Shopping Centre, Oxford

Brave New World. Photo credit Richard Budd
Brave New World. Photo credit Richard Budd

Cool. Weird. Fun?
Creation Theatre’s adaptation, reimagination and reinvention of Huxley’s 1931 classic is kind of awkward, kind of funny, kind of awesome. Staged in the middle of Oxford’s new Westgate Shopping Centre, this is truly a 21st-century project. As the audience watch the play, unknowing shoppers wander past looking at us, them, themselves. We really seem to be in a weird new world.

On arrival, the audience are given wireless headphones which play uncomfortable, whispered words while we wait for the show to start. But it already has: with a touch of Artaudian absurd, we look around us at the people of this world, shopping, chatting, shouting. The cast enter down the escalators in bizarre semi-naked, semi-raincoat costumes. We are in a world unlike and yet the same as our own.

Huxley’s novel is a classic of the dystopian genre, ever more popular in the post-Brexit, post-truth world we apparently live in. Revolutionary at its time, it has become a little au fait as a consequence of the endless reiterations of ‘the world’s going to shit’ narrative. Creation Theatre have successfully modernised and rediscovered it. Using microphones, zappy sound effects, multiple cameras and general weirdness, Brave New World is zapped from the 1930s to the 2050s.

Bernard Marx (Joseph Richardson), at odds somewhat with the world around him, travels to New Mexico to see the ‘savage reservation’ and discovers an English speaking savage, who he believes is the illegitimate son of the ruler of ‘London Nidas’- his company. He transports ‘John Savage’ (Adam Karrie) back to civilization and he becomes a public spectacle. He gives lectures and performances, women love him: he is the Primordial Man. He is finally overcome by the controlling authorities and his freedom is suppressed. The (hopeless) end.

This is the rough narrative of Huxley’s original text. John Holloway’s reinterpretation adapts this somewhat nostalgic ‘times were better back then’ into a more complex examination of what constitutes a ‘good society’. Karrie appears a Book of Mormon preacher, spouting Shakespeare and condemning the modern world. Neither old nor new is necessarily a better place. This adaptation retains the essential warnings against what a ‘bad society’ is but leaves the solution in ambiguity.

Aside from its total coolness, the production isn’t perfect. Richardson fundamentally lacks stage presence, failingly to carry a very dialogue heavy script. Holloway really labours the ‘we’re in the future’ part of the play (‘I can’t imagine what books are like’, ‘those are words from the past!’), which doesn’t really need stating. And it’s quite static in delivery, relying on the setting to delivery visuals rather than provide any onstage action.

Despite a pretty strong cast, the star of the show is the concept and style of the production. Many ‘site-specific’ theatre companies are really just site-responsive, but here we really are in a weird new world. In Westgate Shopping Centre.

4 stars

Review by Thomas Froy

Brave New World, Westgate Centre, 1 July – 11 August
https://www.creationtheatre.co.uk/

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