Of the themes that recur in science fiction, colonialism is one of the biggest. Space and time and unfamiliar civilisations lend themselves to tales of exploration, of adventure or oppression. This is perhaps especially true of early sci-fi, tales written in a time where gallant men in pith helmets were just beginning to feel like they were bumping into the edge of the map, that all that had been discovered was soon to be all there was to discover.
Adaptations of two of these tales are being staged at Summerhall this Fringe – War With The Newts, based on the novel by Karel Capek (which I am sadly unable to see but if it’s anywhere near as good as the book will be worth checking out) and Erewhon, originally by Samuel Butler. The story concerns a gentleman explorer finding a society where everything is literally sdrawkcab – women are in charge, green skin is the height of beauty, crime is treated as a curable malady and illness as a horrific offense.
Possibly one of the most interesting things about Meeks’ staging was the way the story was framed before it began – primarily through technology and identity. The show uses both iPhones and an antique magic lantern to create projections, an interesting set up talking through time about how images are created and shared. Of course the story is not only told through technology – it is also told through Meek himself. He addresses this, talking about how perhaps he as a white man is not the right man to be talking about colonialism, about the difficulties of both the message and the messenger. What could be an awkward, rough moment is well written and wittily makes connections between history and theatre, making it more than a stating of the obvious. However this section also is imbued with an uncertainty that seeps through the rest of the show. While Meek is very obviously tongue in cheek it is very hard to tell what cheek his tongue is in; is he satirising ‘political correctness’ or those who don’t see its importance?
In other places in the play this uncertainty applies to the show’s attitude towards technology, towards society, towards attempts to escape from your own life or world. Sometimes the ambiguity works well, leaving the audience to judge Erewhon and the people in it. However in the more political sections the ambiguity feels more like a way to not have to commit to what the play is saying, to have it both ways.
Part of what creates the sense of ambiguity comes from the slightly uneven pacing of the piece. For much of the show little seems to happen in the plot, gently exploring the amusing contradictions of Erewhon, before the end crams in time travel and meta-theatrical layering connecting our present and that of the play. It felt like many interesting threads that either appeared through the show or were thrown in towards the end were under explored – whether technology offers an escape or something to escape from, how Erewhon reflected on our own world and the connection between modern and current technologies all showed their heads enticingly before quickly disappearing again.
While the shape of the show felt uneven all the elements within it were beautifully well done – Eva Prowse’s music was perfectly balanced to seem both old-fashioned and futuristic, the projected slides were gorgeous and Meek was a charismatic and winning story-teller.
Erewhon is on at Summerhall until 26th August, as part of the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe. More info here.