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.
“451 was produced by Corn Exchange and Brighton-based visual theatre company Periplum has been built at 101, its dedicated Outdoor Arts Creation Space on New Greenham Business Park. It was commissioned by Without Walls, Brighton Festival, Greenwich+Dockland International Festival and Norfolk & Norwich Festival. It has been supported by Greenham Common Trust and Arts Council England.”