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.’