Theatre Passe Muraille brings Aldous Huxley’s dystopian classic to the Toronto stage
Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World is one of the most well known dystopian science fiction novels, often mentioned in the same breath as Orwell’s 1984. I had never heard of it being staged before, so I was eager to see Litmus Theatre’s production at Theatre Passe Muraille. Matthew Thomas Walker’s adaptation is innovative and earnest; it feels exactly like a fearful vision of a commercialized, soulless future from the perspective of 1931.
Unfortunately, eras of yore like the 30s were also bastions of unbridled sexism and racism. I haven’t read the book since high school, but at the time the “noble savage” trope that occurs with the character of John left a bad taste in my mouth. What I didn’t remember was the deeply embedded misogyny. (I doubt I was aware enough in the 90s to have caught all of it.)
Litmus does, I think, the best it can with that aspect of the content. They are obviously dedicated to maintaining the integrity of the text, and there would be no way to challenge the sexism without a re-imagining. There is one simple — but conspicuous — thing they have done: casting Mustapha Mond, the World Controller, as a black woman instead of a white man. Nehassaiu deGannes portrays her with a swagger combined with sharp intellect, and a calm acceptance of her own hypocrisy, which makes the difficult character believable.
Another slightly more subtle choice is to make Lenina Crowne (Zoë Sweet) the de facto protagonist. She doesn’t do any more than in the book, other than narrate the final scene, and it’s only upon reflection that I appreciate what Litmus has done. Even though Lenina is a product of her conditioning, who never consciously resists the mores of her culture, we see most scenes from her perspective.
So even though I personally despise the sex negativity of Huxley’s ideals, Lenina does complicate those ideals. Huxley condemns “promiscuity” but this production seems to suggest that Lenina could have had meaningful relationships with Bernard (Jesse Dwyre), Henry (Carlos González-Vio), or even John (Eli Ham.) She, out of all the characters, seems to have both a capacity to love and an instinct for self-preservation. Her humanity is especially stark set against the superficiality of Fanny (Sophia Fabiilli), the naivete of Helmholtz (Adriano Sobretodo Jr), and the egotism of the Director (Ryan Hollyman.)
Just as Brave New World is set in a world we’ve never known, so is Passe Muraille used in a way I’ve never seen. A portion of the audience sits on the stage, and the playing area encompasses a section of the ground level, the stairs and second floor walkway, and even the catwalk. These levels give us the impression of the factory where most of the characters work, and lighting and sound work to complete the effect. Movable scrims allow for settings outside of the factory and create shadows for scenes that involve showering and sex. (Although there there is an orgy scene that takes place on the ground floor, directly in front of the audience, displaying remarkable physical control by the actors.)
While my research has shown that this is not the very first theatrical adaption of Brave New World, it is a classic that has been mostly untouched, as yet, and I would love to see more takes on this narrative. I feel it has much to offer in critiques of capitalism and commercialism — and much to criticize in terms of sex and sexuality, as well as idealization of poverty and appropriation of indigenous culture.
- Brave New World plays at the Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace (16 Ryerson Ave, Toronto) until October 16, 2016
- Showtimes are Tuesday (except October 4) through Saturday at 7:30 pm with Wednesday Pay What You Can shows at 11:30 am and Sunday matinees at 2 pm
- Ticket prices range from $22 to $28
- Purchase tickets online or by calling 416.504.7529
Photo of Nehassaiu deGannes and Adriano Sobretodo Jr by Dahlia Katz