‘A darkly beautiful rendition of a classic dystopian novel, which hits you straight in the gut’ The Stage
Produced in collaboration with Corn Exchange Newbury
451 combines immersive sound and sensory theatre to depict a dystopic society where literature is outlawed and acts of violence are rewarded.
Inspired by Ray Bradbury’s visionary novel Fahrenheit 451, this incendiary outdoor performance recounts the story of a society in which books are banned and firemen are employed to burn them. Bradbury’s classic text has proven prophetic, reflected in the rise of the ipad, surveillance, interactive media, the televised pursuit of fugitives, and the continuing radical power of the written word.
As we witness a rise in monitoring and attacks on freedom of expression we might even believe that there could be a future where books may once again hold a secret knowledge…
Funded by Arts Council England. Built at 101 Outdoor Arts Creation Space. Commissioned by Without Walls Street Arts Consortium, Brighton Festival, Greenwich & Docklands Festival, and Norfolk & Norwich Festival.
The Times Top Ten outdoor events 2015
‘The image of literature in flames is an enduringly chilling symbol of the death of free speech – just think of the book burnings in Nazi Germany. In 1953, less than a decade after the Second World War, it formed the basis of American author Ray Bradbury’s classic dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451 – the temperature at which paper burns.An acclaimed film version of this tale of rebellion by one ‘fireman’ against his job of immolating ‘illicit’ books, starring Julie Christie, was released in 1966. Here, award-winning local site-responsive outdoor theatre company Periplum return to Brighton Festival with this spectacular new pyrotechnic adaptation of Bradbury’s enduring parable about the dangers of state control.
The graffiti-scrawled concrete of the abandoned Preston Barracks is bleakly perfect for the prison-camp atmosphere cultivated by an ominous soundscape of soaring planes. Periplum make great use of the vertical, as helmeted enforcement officers flashing spotlights tower over us on wheeled ladders.
Successfully paring the story down to its essence, Periplum reconfigures it for our thoroughly networked age. Brutally beautiful, verse-like propagandist speeches embrace the digital encroachment of social media, even as we take photos on our phones. After one fiery set-piece, we’re encouraged to upload any videos we’ve made of a character’s execution.
A few too many times the sound drowns out dialogue, but the sensory impact of this strikingly choreographed, hauntingly scored and book-blazing touring show hits you straight in the gut. And with post-election talk of ‘a snoopers’ charter’, it’s hard not to wince at the smilingly delivered line, ‘Remember, you voted for this.’
Tom Wicker, The Stage
‘Free events at celebratory citywide occasions such as the Brighton Festival are a mixed blessing. Unfortunately, the fact they’re free means we’re supposed to be thankful even when they’re actually a bit ramshackle and rubbish. We are British, after all, and “putting up with” is a national characteristic. It’s great, then, to be able to report that the hour-long adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s famous dystopian 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451, by local open air theatre crew Periplum, was a truly enjoyable success.
Preston Barracks was originally set up to counter possible Napoleonic invasion then, throughout the Victorian era, was home to cavalry regiments. Photos exist of the survivors of the charge of the Light Brigade posing within its confines. During the latter decades of the 20th Century it was whittled down, then much of it was sold to a supermarket. The remaining Preston Barracks, to be redeveloped during the coming year by nearby Brighton University, was sold to the council in the 1990s and is now a wasteland surrounded by sealed, graffiti-decorated buildings. Perfect, it turns out, for Periplum, whose work has something of Mutoid Waste Company’s Mad Max-goes-to-Glastonbury visual ethos.
The idea of burning human ideas in paper form still has huge resonance
Starting at 9.45pm, to ensure darkness, the space is lit with flaming torches and before the show begins cheery, festive crowd conversation is drowned out by distorted speeches and very loud jet noises via a Tannoy-style speaker system. Brilliantly, given the flat lay-out, and the fact we’re not facing a single stage, the action takes place all around us on scaffolding and poles (the latter topped with TV aerials). The gymnastic cast are constantly clambering about on them.
Bradbury’s novel – and the touchstone François Truffaut film from 1966 – concern a totalitarian society where books are banned and “firemen” go about burning any that can be found. The idea of burning human ideas in paper form still has huge resonance, despite our iPads and information-age technology. Thus, to a suitably theatening gothic soundtrack, initially announced by a lone violinist, militaristic Stalinist police state figures hold aloft burning books while their leader chants that “books are banned, reading is forbidden.
One book is thrown aloft to explode. The police, looking like a fascist Daft Punk in mirrored helmets, ride amongst the crowd on three wonderful vehicles that combine giant cartwheels with ladders from which they shine spotlights on us, as in a prison camp. A friend’s teenage son, who was looking the wrong way, almost got run over by one, only adding to the sense of the drama being very present.
The story, loosely framed, concerns “fireman” Guy Montag’s struggles with the book laws and gradual realisation of the kind of state he’s living in. Along the way, book-readers are relentlessly pursued and we see one chased to a book-lined podium that explodes into fiery life as she sacrifices herself amid the flames. Police using flame-throwers are a constant theme, as are chanted slogans, such as the thought-provoking “Happiness is more important than knowledge.” The action culminates in multiple fireworks lighting up the space and an eye-wowing tickertape shower, hammering home the climatic sequence. Bradbury's work is a harsh tale, although with more light in it than 1984, but tonight the hard edges were worked into a ferocious spectacular that boasted a ravey, industrial theatre, both visually entertaining and potent.’
Thomas H Green, Arts Desk
‘A rich mix of spectacular visual imagery, stunning sound installation, and thought-provoking storytelling. A particularly beautiful and disturbing recurring motif in the show is the fluttering of book leaves in the night air. The inner voice – and the power of words (thought, written, spoken) over relentless screen images – is a crucial element of Fahrenheit 451, and that is reflected in this production’
Dorothy Max Prior - Total Theatre
Periplum had audiences spellbound and silent in Newbury. The innovative outdoor theatre company makes work that is grand in both scale and aim, and this new work is no exception. It takes the journey and message of Bradbury’s dark and prophetic novel and turns it into an evocative and atmospheric visual narrative. We are immersed in an oppressive state in which literature is banned to keep peace and tranquillity amongst the masses.
Teams of terrifying fire fighters no longer quench flames, but use them to start fires whenever books are discovered. Like the fearfully compliant masses of a dictator-led state, we the audience stand silently as a series of violent and intimidating scenes play out before us.
Books are discovered, a group of people who are memorising texts so they are not lost are hunted down, a cleansing takes place. We witness punishments, executions and the death of a martyr. The spectacular scale of their work never lessens the detail of the story, which, whilst not following the text of the book to the letter, consistently reflects the essence and heart of the text.
The faceless fire fighters, atop giant wheeled ladders roll relentlessly through the crowd with screaming whistles, flame-throwers and searchlights, hunting for dissidents, as the book activists rush amongst us on the ground, fleeing or fighting the forces that aim to control them.
Most of the action takes place above our heads: performers scale aerial poles, spin through a giant watchtower and climb a burning pyre. A central, dark, spinning cradle represents the home of our protagonist, the doubting fireman Montag. It is not much of a safe house; as the tannoy speakers calmly remind us, we are all being watched, we are never alone, for our own safety, of course.
Packed with poignant and powerful visual imagery of oppression and freedom, this stunning piece of theatre also expertly layers text and music, both pre-recorded and performed live, alongside the energetic and passionate physical performances. It isn’t easy to deliver a relatively complex narrative in a big, visual outdoor theatre piece.
Many works of this nature stay firmly in the carnival or procession arts territory in order to ensure that everyone accesses the work and that nothing is lost. Periplum, however, aims high, bringing Damian Wright’s sonorous and poetic writing into perfect harmony with Claire Raftery’s decisive and masterful physical and visual direction.
It is testament to the narrative that the one-thousand-strong audience, outdoors at night, were practically silent, captivated throughout. An audience member standing near to me was shushed for making a rustling noise during a loud sequence with pyrotechnics and smoke.
Despite the grand scale, there are moments of detail and beauty that highlight the humans amongst the machines of this blank and hollow future world. A stunning performance of live violin from Mike Simmonds adds yet another layer and provides a beacon, like a lantern or a warning call, whispering across the smoky night sky. The violin sings of loss and regret; the performer reminds us of the people fighting the system.
It is a pertinent piece, drawing contemporary connections with our current sound-bite-driven media world where we are drenched with mindless information and television to keep us sedate rather than to educate and where we see increasing attacks on freedom of expression. It calls on us all to fight back, ignore the spin and take back the truth, reclaim our own voices and free ourselves.’
Liz Allum, British Theatre Guide
‘DRAMATIC, dynamic, all-inclusive. This was Periplum’s spectacular event, 451, in the grounds of Newbury’s Elizabethan Shaw House. It was action-packed, full of pyrotechnics, audio-visually intensive, gymnastically stunning. It never stopped to calm down. The audience was drawn in before any of the action started. On arrival, we were greeted with the tranquil setting of a large, grassed, outdoor space, looking very different to normal. It housed 14 very tall thin steel columns dotted around with aerials or lights on top.
The sound was pervasive – a low, pulsating bass, with occasional loud aircraft noises panning from left to right, as well as officious voice-overs in different languages. Despite the balmy spring evening, the atmosphere was menacing. The performance started with a lone violinist, playing introspective and haunting music. After that, things got fast and furious.
Fire was everywhere, as was smoke, explosions, and theatrical lights. Three huge skeletal metal machines rolled around the auditorium, each with two large wheels, at least 12 feet in diameter and a massive ladder in the middle. Surreal fire-engines. There was frequent PA voice-over of the authoritarian dictator’s minions, in different languages, ordering all books to be destroyed.
Intermittently, men shinned up two of the steel poles to trigger loud explosions at their tops. There were two principal actors in addition to the violinist; a woman, who was burnt to death with fierce, real, flames surrounded by her books, and a man, also a bookaholic, who sat on a seat on a raised platform, often rotating in a full circle.
The production is based on Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953. 451 degrees Fahrenheit is the combustion point of paper. Here is a future society when books are outlawed and firemen exist only to burn books. Book owners are hunted down and publicly punished.
In 1953, when the book was published, and 1949 (Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’ 1984) this was an outlandish concept. Now, with ID cards, the internet and social media, it’s not so unthinkable.
Periplum’s event was scary and stunning, successfully bringing the book into our modern world.’
Nick Davies, Newbury Weekly News
‘Enthralling Outdoor Theatre. A visually stunning piece, spectacular and intimidating’
Brighton & Hove Argus Pick of The Best, Brighton Festival Highlights
‘Wow what a great show! Thank you.’
‘451 was a stunning performance.’
‘Very thought-provoking and brilliantly produced. Not to be missed!’
‘Spectacular stuff & moving too.’
‘Some brilliant interactive theatre.’
‘451 was great. It makes me want to read the book again.’
‘The absolute star of the show is the sound(world), which sets the scene really effectively and punctuates the drama throughout the piece itself. The soundtrack is superb.’
‘Really enjoyed tonight.’
photo: ray gibson
photo: ray gibson
photo: ray gibson
photo: ray gibson
photo: ray gibson