Erewhon: or, Over the Range is a fantasy novel by Samuel Butler which, first published anonymously in 1872, presented itself as the experiences of its narrator on discovering the mysterious country and near-utopian community of Erewhon – an anagram of “nowhere” – which had largely abandoned the controlling influence of technology. Seen by many as a satire of Victorian society, Erewhon was praised by George Orwell and even referenced in a recent episode of Doctor Who.
What follows, though, is the tale of a British explorer who, seeking adventure, unthinkingly – and only for time – ‘goes native’.
While undoubtedly following in the literary tradition of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Bulter’s Erewhon lacks its iconic cultural status, meaning that a certain amount of contextual explanation is required. Adaptor and performer Arthur Meek is happy to provide this at the start of this co-production with Edinburgh-based Magnetic North: not least the narrator’s imperialistic, mysognistic, homophobic attitudes which are neither to be applauded nor condoned. Meek, self-identifying as a white straight male, insists that he’s in no position to either excuse or apologise for the consequences of British Imperialism around the world, especially with regards indigenous cultures.
What follows, though, is the tale of a British explorer who, seeking adventure, unthinkingly – and only for time – “goes native”. With some subtlety we’re led into a scenario where first contact is effectively made by the native culture rather than the arch imperialist; much of the humour in this reworking comes from seeing our man “George” outraged that the imposition of culture and beliefs wasn’t the other way round. When he finally rebels, he accuses the Erewhonians of being incapable of questioning the society and moral standards into which they were born—a charge equally applicable to him, of course!
The USP of this presentation is that it is given as an old-school Magic Lantern show, albeit one reliant on LSD-illumination, the occasional use of an iPhone, and accompanied by pulsing, amped-up electric score performed live by Eva Prowse. While the disparate illustrative styles of the numerous artists responsible for the slides don’t really add anything to the presentation, the mix of technologies on display is both entertaining and thematically satisfying.