Théâtre Anthéa’s venerated house company celebrates its 20th anniversary in style by tackling Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, one of the most pertinent and poignant texts in modern literature.

Collectif 8, the Nice-based theatre company, spearheaded by the brilliant and cerebral Gaële Boghossian and the undisputed wizard of images Paulo Correia, is known for many things: for inventing “cinéâtre”, the hybrid of cinema and theatre… their monumental, darkly productions, their choice of actors who fit their pieces like a glove, superb musical support, and last but not least the extraordinary level of professionalism they bring to every work and to every stage.

But most of all they are a… no, THE reference in turning adapting complex literature into a darkly sexy and intriguing 21st century adaptation, not shying away from controversial topics like violence, governmental interference and surveillance, and mind control. Case in point: their masterful adaptation of Orwell’s 1984 . This season the company has tackled Le Meilleur des Mondes – Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World – and what a show it is indeed!

But first a refresher of Aldous Huxley’s book to better understand the play: Published in 1932 – just as the Nazi era was picking up speed – his famous dystopia is set in a futuristic society where emotions and individuality are conditioned out of citizens. Minds are tranquilized and formatted to believe in living in a perpetual state of faux, chemically engineered “happiness”. The World State revolves around efficiency and science, with citizens categorized into predetermined classes. Bernard Marx, an Alpha, discovers a woman and her son living outside the controlled society. The son, John, challenges societal norms, leading to conflict. John ultimately succumbs to despair, highlighting the oppressive nature of the society. And perhaps the most worrying aspect: people are quite OK with abandoning individual thought and just listening to what they want to hear.

Now replace some of the keywords in Huxley’s work with references of our daily lives today, and you’ll understand just how prescient his writing was. Our collective minds are already skillfully distracted from the truly important issues through mass manipulation, from lowering educational standards to the apparent normalization of chemical pacifiers like alcohol, pills, drugs, and psycho-enhancers; the establishment of artificial norms in status, appearance, and fashion; and of course the internet and social media, the biggest propaganda machine out there. Compound that with the subliminal pressure to correspond to industry-dictated norms, as well as the unstoppable arrival of Artificial Intelligence, and you have a clear picture of the state of our current society and its way into the next decade or two.

Collectif 8

Sex, drugs, suicide, and other controversial topics have led to Huxley’s Brave New World being banned in more conservative places like Ireland or several U.S. states – not just after its publication in the 1930s but as recently as the late 1980s. Interestingly though, the term “Brave New World” is directly taken from a Shakespeare play, The Tempest… a play about building an utopian society which, however, turns into a nightmare in which humans are trapped and their humanity is wiped out. And just an interesting factoid about the writer: he died, aged 69, on the very day that JFK was assassinated.

Theatre lovers are once again in for a rich, awe-inspiring experience: Collectif 8’s hallmark is its marriage of live stage theatre with a parallel layer of video and multimedia elements, and the complex technique is used to absolute perfection here. The décor may be sparse and starkly industrial but it is the ideal backdrop to Paulo Correia’s videoscapes that range from dreamy and poetic to moody, fantastical, and eerie, creating tension and emotion, and forcing the spectator to face the unfaceable. The seductive “narrator” – consciously depicted as an AI creation – leads with a soft voice but an unbendable will, thus representing society’s (and marketing’s) sheer inescapable temptations.

The talent pool that the company can dip into is enormous and impressive, and here, once again, we are treated to stage craft with surgical precision. Nothing is left to coincidence or improvisation when Matthieu Astre, Paulo Correia, Damien Rémy, and Océane Verger step on the planks. The music, once again written and performed by Benoît Berrou, and the magical light creations by Tiphaine Bureau are invisible but unmissable “actors” in themselves. And everything is masterfully brought together by the multitalented Gaële Boghossian whose directing skills are on a par with her writing and acting.

In an interview Gaele Boghossian explains what motivated Collectif 8 to pick up this controversial and complex material.

What was the biggest challenge adapting this text?

Weaving a dramaturgy. Finding the starting point, the angle of view. The novel being very dense, it was necessary to both isolate the themes (numerous and complex) that I wanted to address, to construct this atmosphere of the dictatorship of happiness in a targeted way, in a single location, and to focus on the relationships of a few striking protagonists to tell about all the others. The other difficulty was also to put into dialogue certain purely literary passages and to develop codes of cinematographic narration.

I chose to focus on the 4 “deviant” characters from Brave New World – each deviant in a way that is specific to them: Lenina, the pure product calibrated by a smooth and docile society, will fall in love with a stranger, a “savage“; Bernard Marx, “infected” by alcohol in his bloodstream as a fetus; Mustapha Mond and his “inside-outside” positioning; and finally John, from a society whose foundations are the extreme opposite of those of Brave New World.

Collectif 8

And which themes did you prioritize?

Obviously, there is a very strong discourse on the status of women, which is regularly found in our shows; here, the objectified woman, “pneumatic,” a product of consumption and a trophy. Then, the theme of the prohibition of solitude for every citizen led me to develop a reflection on social networks and dopamine.

If Huxley already perceived the influence of the media on the masses and the categorization of individuals, electronics – still a laboratory curiosity at the time of the book’s publication – did not allow him to imagine the emergence of networks and the development of the web in which we are ensnared, where each of our purchases or searches is controlled and analyzed. We are part of an immense database accessible to those who hold power.

We passively demand this surveillance; it is a dictatorship we consent to, and therefore insidious. Our feeling of freedom of expression disguises manipulation of the masses under the pretext of comfort, expression, equality, security, and conviviality. We rush toward words like a child at a candy store. Today, expression media multiply to such an extent that thinkers are often suffocated in the shadow of the barkers of simplistic remarks. The world is complex, it is not black and white; let’s restore its contours, its nuances, its paradoxes, its vocabulary, and its thought; let’s question it – and with that, we would endanger an established order, and freedom of expression would be rehabilitated, would regain its true value: counter power…

Collectif 8

Another line of thought concerns the technology strongly addressed by Huxley. When I began the research and dramaturgical work two years ago, the subject of artificial intelligence was in its infancy, but I couldn’t help but think that if it had been around when Huxley was, he would have staged his plot in that world. Our Le Meilleur des Mondes denounces the nightmarish perspective of a totalitarian society fascinated by scientific progress and convinced it can offer mandatory happiness to its citizens.

This hierarchical society pushed to the extreme may today lead us to the establishment of an artificial intelligence entity to govern the world of humans. So, I set it up in my adaptation by naming it AMOS (for SOMA) and gave it a prominent role in the narration. Two years later, artificial intelligence is one of the major themes of global concern, and the subject of debate will have even more relevance in the show.

Gaele Boghossian quote

The sets of your previous creations are often spectacular. What have you imagined for this new play?

I conjured up fragile bodies, almost childlike in a universe too vast for them. Bodies naked under the omnipresent gaze of the humanoid incarnation of an all-powerful, almost deified artificial intelligence. Lost in space, objectified, confined in a fictitious freedom, the characters appear suspended like embryos in the amniotic fluid of a society that feeds on their life energy.

The space is made up of immensely huge and bare boxes (coffin-aquarium-screens), the actors are enclosed, lost in this abyss. The blend of iron and organic materials highlights this opposition between the confinement of the body and the capacity for the mind to escape. The implementation of all aspects (finalisation of the adaptation, stage construction, directing, acting, lighting, sound, and video) was done in perfect balance, each aspect feeding off the others, like echoes telling the same story in multiple dimensions.

How do you choose the works you want to tackle? Are there common threads among them?

The common thread is always a political message, political in the primary sense of the term, from “polis“: the city. The stage is for me a vital platform today where the media become increasingly obscure and unreliable in the eyes of the population, and where social networks bog down thought with poorly digested clichés and populism on subjects too complex to be addressed without reflection and deep argumentation.

Collectif 8

The theatrical platform is a political act in the strong sense, in the broad sense. It in no way excludes lightness, but the stakes it represents make us accountable for rigorous and meaningful exercise. These great works of visionary authors in their societal analysis are extremely readable bridges between our past, present, and future. They provide very current bases for reflection on the evolution of humanity thanks to the necessary distance for observation that they offer.

You adapted both 1984 and Brave New World, two texts that paint a utopian world under a thought dictatorship. What is similar, what is different between these two?

I believe that both works share the same root, indeed a dispossession, extreme infantilization that includes surveillance, indoctrination, misinformation, and a caste system. What differs, in my opinion, beyond the shared root, is that in 1984, we are faced with a dictatorship of terror, and in Brave New World, a dictatorship of happiness. If we observe the world today, we can see that these two dictatorships effectively exist to varying degrees. The dictatorship of terror is obviously most visible in the nature of its consequences. The dictatorship of happiness scares me in another way; it appears to me to be much more insidious, subtle, and perhaps even more dangerous because it is difficult to detect and creates little opposition or revolution. In itself, it seems difficult, if not impossible, to overthrow a dictatorship of happiness…

Thank you for this interview, Gaële!

In a totalitarian society based on the dictatorship of happiness and overconsumption, individuals are kept in a state of childishness, like babies in bottles, and formatted until they are emptied of their humanity. Through this adaptation, our goal is to transpose and sublimate the original themes of the novel into contemporary issues. It was also important for us to imagine a situational framework opening onto a scenographic universe capable of accommodating our field of video-digital exploration and conducive to the development of our artistic specificity.

— Gäele Boghossian

2024 marks the 20-year anniversary of Collectif 8’s foundation. Established in Nice in 2004, the company was initially associated with Théâtre National de Nice, mentored by TNN-director Daniel Benoin. When he vacated his position and moved on to head the newly built Théâtre Anthéa in Antibes, he took Gaele Boghossian and Paulo Correia with him, giving them extraordinary opportunities to explore the fusion of theater, visual arts, digital creation, and music. The creative duo has been behind the creation of around fifteen shows that offer a hybridization of theater and cinema, utilizing video and multimedia creation in the service of dramaturgy. Collective 8’s work demonstrates a remarkable ability to blend a truly popular theatrical form with a highly innovative graphic and video universe. Plays are typically based on the great classics of French and international literature from the 16th to the 20th century, and include

two versions of L’Île des Esclaves by Marivaux | Double Assassinat dans la rue Morgue and its revisited version Marginalia (Edgar Allen Poe) | Angelo, Tyran de Padoue  and L’Homme qui rit (both by Victor Hugo) | Alice (Lewis Carroll) | Faust (Goethe) | La Religieuse (Diderot) | George Dandin (Molière) | Le Chateau (Franz Kafka) | 1984 (George Orwell) | Monte-Cristo (Alexandra Dumas)  | L’Orestie (Aeschylus)

Collectif 8 is also a regular at the world’s most important international theatre festival in Avignon where it enjoys cult status with fans and critics alike. This summer, they will be bringing Orwell’s 1984 to Théâtre de l’Oulle in the City of the Popes.

Collectif 8

Nice is blessed to have such an accomplished company in its backyard. Antibes is proud to give it an artistic home at Théâtre Anthéa, the second most important theatre in France after the Comédie Française in Paris. And Paris… well, Paris can but be envious.

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Le Meilleur des Mondes
Adaption of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

with Matthieu Astre, Paulo Correia, Damien Rémy, Océane Verger
Video creation Paulo Correia
Music and sound design Benoît Berrou
Lighting design Tiphaine Bureau
Set design Collectif 8
Production and distribution manager Vanessa Anheim Cristofari

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Théâtre Anthéa, Antibes
13 March to 5 April, 2024
Ticket booking information here 

Follow Collectif 8 on Facebook or Instagram 

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All images courtesy Collectif 8

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