Why is dystopia all the rage onstage?

Why is dystopia all the rage onstage?

15 September 2015

by Holly Williams

We've heard a lot from Dawn King on Theatre Cloud. But here's a different, wider take: journalist Holly Williams talks to Dawn about why today's theatres are bringing the 20th century's great dystopian novels - including Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's 1984 and Franz Kafka's The Trial - novels to the stage.

“We live in a dystopia now.” So claims playwright Dawn King, who’s adapted Aldous Huxley’s great dystopian novel, Brave New World. “We’re walking around with tiny computers in our pockets. Our government probably knows everything about us; our phone companies definitely do, even your calorie intake and heart rate. At the same time, there are boatloads of people dying to get into countries like ours... it’s pure dystopia. We live in the future, and the future’s failed us.”

"We live in the future, and the future's failed us"

In this almost sci-fi modern moment, it is little wonder Huxley’s prescient 1931 novel still seems bitingly relevant in many ways. The satire - set more than 500 years from now - takes place in a World State that has a caste system rigorously imposed through genetic engineering and mind control. Not that the populace mind this state of affairs: everyone is pacified into contentment by blissful drugs, promiscuous sex, and multi-sensory movie-watching. It was this element of consumerist control which made Huxley’s novel seem particularly of-the-moment to King.

"Brave New World is one of the only dystopias where people are oppressed by happiness and pleasure”

“I think Brave New World is one of the only dystopias where people are oppressed by happiness and pleasure,” she points out. “Everyone is a consumer, and that’s their function. They’re distracted by sport, sex and having a good time and that feels not dissimilar to how we are now. Everyone is constantly distracted from having any deep thoughts at all, which feels very relevant.”

To the UK, at least - she acknowledges that the other kind of dystopia, run by “active oppression and threat of death”, also exists in our modern world, if not on this exact land mass.

King is not the only one who has been looking to old novels for freshly horrific visions: this year we’ve also had a new theatrical adaptation of Franz Kafka’s 1914 novel The Trial by Nick Gill at the Young Vic, and the return of Headlong’s hugely successful version of George Orwell’s 1984 - adapted and directed by Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke - in the West End.


Headlong's production of 1984

None of the young playwrights adapting these fictions have exactly struggled to make the works resonate in the modern day. Stories of oppressive regimes wielding power over individuals only seem to have gained in pertinence in a 21st century obsessed by screens, monitored by governments and corporations, crippled by faceless bureaucratic procedures, told by a million tiny messages what to think, what to want, what to buy…

And while they may offer us the past’s view of the future, these dystopian works are far from being consigned to dusty bookshelves,instead proving to be perennially popular modern classics; Brave New World regularly appears on ‘best novels’ and ‘must read’ lists.

These are the classics that we all know - or at least pretend to know

This can be an additional layer of baggage for the theatrical adaptor, of course. These are the classics that we all know - or at least pretend to know: 1984 came top of a recent poll about novels that people lie about having read.

Like many readers, King first encountered Brave New World as a teenager and adored it, so she took little persuasion when Royal & Derngate artistic director James Dacre suggested adapting. But, she acknowledges, to realise onstage the imaginative world Huxley presents in the novel, she’s had to take some liberties with the material.


Rory Kinnear in The Trial at the Young Vic

“He was writing before genetic engineering or test-tube babies, and now obviously the scientific view has totally changed,” explains King, who’s taken a scalpel to some of his long-winded and detailed explanations of the Bokanovsky bottled-embryo, babymaking methods that we know, today, could simply never work.

“I’m trying to make sure there’s nothing in the play that would make somebody in the audience go ‘but that’s ridiculous!’ And I’m trying to figure out how to create a world that is coherent and makes sense in itself: audiences coming in shouldn’t have had to have read the book.” Not, she’s keen to point out, that it will be straining to be too 2015, referencing our current tech or trends: “what I’m not doing is talking about iPhone 164,” she laughs.

Looking to the future seems like an obvious way for theatre to grapple with the biggest questions facing our society in the present

It’s not the first time King has engaged in ‘world creation’ onstage: her play Foxfinder was also set in a dystopian near-future. Looking to the future seems like an obvious way for theatre to grapple with the biggest questions facing our society in the present, she suggests, and yet British theatres - until recently - haven’t staged much in the way of science-fiction.

“It’s a real shame, but I do think it’s starting to change,” she says. “I’m not surprised that people are interested in thinking about the future and being quite apprehensive about what it might be like. We live in this unstable time that is hard to handle, hard to understand.” By looking again at Huxley’s Brave New World, we may be better able to reflect on our own.

Brave New World premieres at Royal and Derngate, Northampton, where it runs from 4 to 26 September 2015. It then tours to Edinburgh, Blackpool, Nottingham, Cheltenham, Wolverhampton, Darlington and Bradford where it concludes on 5 December.