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Periplum's 451. Photo: Ray Gibson

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.’

A darkly beautiful rendition of a classic dystopian novel, which hits you straight in the gut

Production Information

Preston Barracks
May 16; then at Norfolk and Norwich Festival, May 22; Greenwich and Docklands International Festival, June 27; and Stockton International Riverside Festival, July 31
Claire Raftery, Damien Wright, adapted from the novel by Ray Bradbury
Mike Simmonds, Barry Han
Claire Raftery, Damien Wright
Martin West, Mike Pattison, Tarn Aitken (set); Aidan O’Brien (sound); Chris Umney (lighting)
Mat Ort (production manager), Danielle Corbishley (stage manager), Colin Eales (rigger), Andy Morris (sound technician), Lightfires (pyrotechnics), Graham Calvert (tannoy)
Cast includes
Danielle Corbishley, Milo Foster-Prior, Florencia Leon, Ben Phillips, Steven Grainger (Live Song), Mike Simmonds (Violinist), Ali Sparror, Will Strange (Book Reader/opening speech), Aurelian Koch (Voiceover)
Periplum, Corn Exchange Newbury, New Greenham Arts
Running time