Arthur Meek, British Empire, Edinburgh Fringe, Erewhon, Eva Prowse, History, Imperialism, Magnetic North Theatre, New Zealand, Nicholas Bone, Samuel Butler, Samuel Butler's Erewhon, Summerhall, Theatre Review
Ideally, for me, a Fringe production of Samuel Butler’s 1872 fantasy novel Erewhon, an extraordinary, rhapsodical balloon flight of ideas, would be as lavish as the book itself. I can picture an open-air opera on Calton Hill, with a chorus of those perfect Italian youths – in Titian’s colours but the Pre-Raphaelites’ costumes – with which Butler had peopled his make-believe world. Yet beggars cannot be choosers and I will have to take what I can get. The “Erewhon” that is currently playing at the Summerhall, courtesy of Arthur Meek and Magnetic North, is a one-man drama, but it is so full of verve that it will meet the original more than midway.
The narrator, Lord Erewhon, is vigorous and booming, almost another Rik Mayall, whilst the stage is always pretty crowded for a one-man show. At its centre is a magic lantern, a precursor to the slide projector, which blinks artwork that has been specially commissioned for this show from different international illustrators. Eva Prowse, a multi-instrumentalist, accompanies the story with synths, samples, guitar and song.
We commence without Lord Erewhon’s name being explained to us. It is as paradoxical as a teenaged James Cook styling himself Captain Australia. Our hero penetrates the unexplored hinterland of New Zealand and where the landscape grows fair, he has finally discovered the nation of Erewhon (an anagram of “nowhere” and pronounced “Ĕ-rĕ-whŏn.”) Lord Erewhon is the exemplary colonialist, with his “coloniser’s kit” containing a Bible, a Union Jack and, if these carrots fail, a pistol. Unfortunately, the awaiting Erewhonians are the worst savages that the Empire is yet to face. They are so un-Aryan as to be bright green and so far south of capitalism as to abhor wealth. They prefer “mutual onanism” over the British Empire’s standard-issue missionary position.
They are, in a word, us. In Lord Erewhon’s acquaintanceship with the Erewhonians, what is supposedly the purest essence of the nineteenth century will impossibly encounter its twenty-first century counterpart. There is a danger here, however, of us believing our own propaganda and judging Lord Erewhon to be a hopeless square who cannot get down and dirty with our progressiveness. But I think that we can see that he is merely a whimsical caricature and one that could be never mistaken for a realistic Victorian. The self-assurance, optimism, and curiosity of his Victorian ethics have been deleted in order to get him into shape for the pantomime. Meek, when out of character, freely admits as much, in making his criticisms of the British Empire so comically hyperbolic as to sound inconsequential.
If the alternative worlds of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) are shining peaks, then Erewhon is, by comparison, a relatively small, tawny hill lying in between. Meek pursues the science-fiction ambiance of Butler’s novel by sprinkling around some retro-futurist glitter. We might be reminded of, say, Buck Rogers. Lord Erewhon is wearing a purple velvet jungle suit and his adventure is always sensually synthy. Unlike in the novel, of course, the Erewhonians that he meets are little green men.
But, in a masterstroke, Meek has brilliantly pre-empted any attempt to compare his play to the novel. Lord Erewhon introduces the story by announcing that the famous novel is actually distorted and unreliable. He aims to correct the historical record and make the truth known. The Erewhonians duly undergo the same postcolonial experience as everybody else; the official, self-serving history that was imposed by representatives of the Empire is at last contested. An alternative narrative is reclaimed.
Butler’s novel was in fact a satire upon relativism, since its narrator, Higgs, gingerly accepts the ridiculous customs of the Erewhonians as being logical in themselves and their own business. He is in this respect the very opposite of the condemnatory Lord Erewhon. Despite this, Butler uses Higgs’ passive observations to actively satirise Victorian Christianity, giving voice to a subversive, marginal perspective that is again the very opposite of Lord Erewhon’s.
Meek tries to clear his play of its debt to Butler but the two are still set up in unavoidable competition. In glossing some of the bolder ironies amongst Butler’s Erewhonians, such as their superstitious reviling of children, the play can feel dumbed-down or even mildly Disneyfied. Were Meek set loose on the Lilliputians and he dyed them green and ignored their quarrelsome wars, we would have the distinct sense that his Gulliver’s Travels was inferior. If Meek’s “Erewhon” feels less sophisticated than the original, this is unfortunate for a self-proclaimed post-colonial enterprise.