Brighton Fringe 2012
Once you get beyond the high-tech fairy-tales of Star Wars ("Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away …"), serious science fiction tends to concern itself more with the present than the future. George Orwell’s ‘1984’ was actually about Britain in 1948, when it was written, with the constantly shifting alliances of the Cold War and the possibilities of surveillance and propaganda available to a totalitarian state. Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is about the position of women in our society, the rise of fundamentalism, and how a theocratic male elite could come to power and control rights to sex and reproduction. These dystopian tales take aspects of our present society and push the trends to their logical limits, to see what the future result might be.
‘Mauve New World’ is of course a pun on ‘Brave New World’, Aldous Huxley’s vision of conformity achieved through bottle-grown babies engineered into different castes, with orgies and drug-induced bliss to keep the mass population happy and productive while an elite managerial class controlled them. Every aspect of our present world is up for examination in SF, from technology to religion, and sex to the Women’s Institute , the good old W I…
… or rather, The Second Fenced Republic’s Institute of Non-men. Our evening’s lecturer welcomed us to the Institute, then started her talk rustling her papers, blinking nervously into the audience and apologising that her original subject of ‘jam-making’ was ‘not appropriate’. She proposed instead – ‘The Genius of Genealogy’, and we felt we were in for a hapless-lecturer spoof.
Short dark hair, glasses, looking awkward and nervous in a loose white blouse, dull grey-brown skirt and no shoes, she stood in front of a simple table with a old fashioned reel-to-reel tape recorder and an equally outdated overhead projector. She made us stand while she played the Institute anthem, and then projected acetates of her husband Frank’s family tree.
But… it quickly became apparent that Frank and his grandfather (Frank the Ist) and father (Frank the 2nd) were the all-important sex, relegating the women in each generation – the wives, mothers and daughters, – to a simple ‘Non-man’ status, with no name but simply a number. Our lecturer was on the chart as ‘Non-man 007’. As she says, shyly – "I’m so glad to be in the small print, even if I’m not technically of any interest". Society had obviously become totally skewed towards men, with women (not even women, of course, merely ‘non-men’) having no rights at all. Husband Frank had decided to marry their daughter, ‘interfering’ with her despite the pain it will cause her and her mother, because – "his pure seed is his name".
We come to realise that Frank’s male forebears have taken part in a war between genetically pure humans, robots, and various human-robot chimeras – ‘meat-bots’. Genetics and robotics have developed to the level where different technological species existed alongside one another, and had to be put down during ‘the Meat-bot Rebellion’. Frank’s coupling with his own daughter is necessary because, as he said – "we have to violate our daughters and break the hearts of our wives to make the world safe for true men to live in".
Non-man 007, went on to tell how she discovered the files on her own mother – "0110, a meat-bot called Emma". She had fallen in love with a sentient vacuum-cleaner called Hooverdroid and become a rebel, sabotaging brainwashing sessions. Also, there were recordings where – "she sang – and it sounded so terribly, terribly … human". As Non-man 007 told us all this, the words gushing out faster and faster with increasing intensity, a buzzer sounded repeatedly and warning lights flashed – the authorities were aware of the crime Non-man 007 was committing by telling us all this. Non-man 007 asked us to remember Mrs Phillips, to whom she had given the recordings, and who "understood". It seems that Mrs Phillips had been punished for this, and finally – chillingly – we wondered just why the subject of jam-making was – not appropriate …
This play, ‘Freakoid’, was written and performed by Emma Adams. It, and the other pieces, are still in a process of development and rewriting which began at The Ovalhouse in London and continues at The Nightingale. I’ve seen a number of really innovative plays here and ‘Freakoid’ and its companions push up that total by three.
Adolescence features strongly in ‘It Gets Better’, the second play of the evening, where we the audience were present at an induction session for ‘The Zone’ – a cyber existence, a sort of ‘Second Life’ it seemed, where young gay men (women weren’t mentioned …) could spend time in a virtual environment away from hassle and abuse. "It locks you in, so you’re now shielded from everything outside – including your family, which in some cases can be a very good thing." It was unclear exactly what ‘The Zone’ entailed – the inductees had to set up their ‘profiles’, which I took to be some sort of avatar like those used in ‘Second Life’, but it wasn’t just online as it seemed that one could snap into the environment at any time, just by touching someone and using the ‘Real-Feel’ technology.
So far, so hi-tech, but the point of ‘It Gets Better’ is that advanced technology won’t, on its own, eliminate all the very human emotions that define us. The induction briefing was conducted by Rafiq – businesslike and very much in charge, in a pale blue sweater with dark hair and heavy designer stubble on a rather hard face. Hovering behind him was Jayson, dressed in black, with a softer face and demeanour – slightly camp. He kept breaking in to Rafiq’s businesslike delivery, to Rafiq’s obvious annoyance, and we sensed the underlying tension – almost marital – between them. It came as no surprise to learn later that the two had once been lovers … Brian Mullin as Rafiq (he also wrote the piece) and Mark Iles as Jayson got just the right amount of bitchiness in the relationship.
Avatars stand in for their human counterparts, of course, and with future technology will presumably have much more of a ‘life’ of their own. One of the current inductees has gone missing off the system – "We need to call the Admin…" but then he reappears, presumably as a virtual presence although this was not made obvious. He’s Jason, a wet-dream jail-bait figure with fur boots, T-shirt tied up to expose his abdomen, and a fabulous blonde wig. I think ‘fabulous’ is the right word here, because the name Jason leads us straight to the Greek legends, to the Argonauts, and the Golden Fleece.
Jason turns out to be Jayson’s younger self, who has somehow got into ‘The Zone’ system. He’s completely outrageous, of course, but he’s also being his true self, and he wants to know why Jayson has made so many compromises, of appearance and behaviour, so as to fit into the mainstream straight world – "Why did you choose him as your boyfriend? ". He reminds Jayson of the pain of the crush his younger self had on a high-school football player, and of all the adolescent angst that he experienced. In a remarkable passage he compares his gayness to being an amphibian – " Amphi, Bios. Two lives. Out of place, not a reptile on land, not a fish in water…" and finally demands – "Tell me if this gets better." To which his older self replies – " I’ve been told that it does, Jason, I’d like to believe it."
Jason was played by Leo-Marcus Wan, an inspired casting, as his smooth-skinned part-Asian looks allowed him a slightly synthetic appearance (almost as if rendered by Pixar ), but it was his voice that made the performance memorable. He’s LOUD – really, really loud, with a slightly nasal intonation that simultaneously conjured up whining teenage angst and the synthetic sound of computer generated speech. At the beginning, Leo-Marcus had appeared solo as himself (no wig etc.) recalling musicals with a gay subtext, and his voice was so powerful I assumed that he was miming an amplified soundtrack. Clever lighting for this section too, with a diagonal spotlight casting his distorted profile shadow down the back wall of the stage, giving us a feeling of two individuals existing simultaneously – Amphi, Bios. Two lives…
Gay people in ‘It Gets Better’ need a sanctuary from ‘bullying, abuse, negative judgments’ , but the (unnamed) narrator of ‘Midsummer’ discovers his own gay yearnings watching the bronzed local lads on a Greek beach – "I didn’t care if I looked like them, I just – wanted them." He’s on holiday, aged fourteen, to "encourage what my parents already suspected" and after he confirms his sexual orientation they announce the fact to the whole village, and their neighbours bring gifts.
For being gay means he is a valuable and important person. This is a future world which has embraced a wonderfully realised mash-up of pre-Christian religions. People celebrate the Midsummer Solstice, there are Cornish village Druids, festivals in Greece where naked wrestlers "writhe in the wrestling pit – home to Divinity" and "statues of male perfection are mirrored by the temple attendants, and priests, and worshippers". The major religion seems to be Mayan, with Shamans and a priesthood staffed by gay men and referred to as ‘The Service’. At times the monologue’s very funny – the Mayans have a Grand Temple, complete with blood-drenched altar, in Herne Hill of all places (I’m visualising the great white pyramid rising above the houses, seen from Crystal Palace – or Balham…), and when agents come at midsummer to take our narrator away to join ‘The Service’, there’s a festival in the village, with – "drugs, mushroom-based rituals and some bloodletting, followed by a disco…"
Nick Field, who wrote and performed ‘Midsummer’, is shaven-headed, with a sonorous voice and he gave off an air of authority as he told of his ascent through the ranks of the priesthood, "scrubbing blood from the alters – being told what I wear, who I sleep with" and "the smell of incense, and sex", until finally he rose to the top, only to give it all up and become an exile. There was imaginative use of sound throughout this play, with drumming and ritual singing and chanting, and lighting which helped locate the narrative, giving us forest greens for hidden shrines and drenching the stage in red for the bloodletting sacrifices. Nick was very physical in his performance, using the whole acting space to dance of perform ritual movements.
So, three possible futures, examining gender politics, technology and religion, to produce glimpses of how our lives might develop.
Any event called ‘Mauve New World’ has to work as science fiction, and this does. ‘Freakoid’ brings to mind ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, and Margaret Atwood’s rules for writing that book were simple – "I would not put into this book anything that humankind had not already done, somewhere, sometime, or for which it did not already have the tools." These plays follow that principle completely, producing believable future societies, but they work as fiction too, with information given out bit by bit, forcing the audience to pay close attention and construct the bigger picture for ourselves.
The show is billed as part of the ‘Pink Fringe’, and so is presumably addressing issues of gay sexuality. Remember that Aldous Huxley took his title from Miranda’s speech in ‘The Tempest’ – "Oh brave new world, that has such people in it". In all three pieces, though, I felt that the themes of exclusion or alienation were in fact pretty universal, and could also be experienced in the same way by people of a different race, religion or who are undergoing the traumas of adolescence. That may be a weakness in the evening’s ‘gay’ identity, but I think it speaks volumes about the common experience of being a human being – gay or straight.