Erewhon is a genuine magic lantern show. Okay, it’s fuelled by gentle LED lighting and not by kerosene – but there is an illustrated, mock-earnest presentation of an important subject, accompanied by cool keyboard sound, melodic voice and guitar. It is, I venture, a pretty epic endeavour, which invites us to “Secure… a slice of Paradise Lost”.
Its subject is society, its core text Samuel Butler’s Erewhon of 1872; the book’s full title, Erewhon, or Over the Range. As a measure of that writer’s influence, consider the fact that George Orwell took Butler’s notebooks with him to Burma. And take this production, funded by Creative Scotland and Creative New Zealand, as a tribute to its global reach.
The magic lantern had its heyday in the late Victorian age, so why not project Butler’s satire through the ‘Empire’s Eye’? Arthur Meek, writer and showman in purple crushed velvet, is from New Zealand and based in New York; but he dons the requisite pith helmet and becomes Lord (George) Erewhon, flag-planting imperialist with add-on pistol, who takes us into the promised land that bears his moniker via slide image and commentary. The tone is breezy, the attitude confident, and you would relax in his company and in Eva Prowse’s music and vocals – except that this place is weird, seriously weird.
The lantern works by reflection and reversal, so it should not be a surprise to learn that in Erewhon crime is cured and sickness punished. There are Colleges of Unreason, and birth results from the pestering of reluctant parents by the multitudes of the “Unborn”. Sex, therefore, is a pleasure to be handled carefully. There is an especially graphic image to this effect! However, that is not the focus of the presentation, or the appealing lecture that it shades into. No, what this is really about is why Erewhonians rid themselves of machines.
Our “bright satanic screens”, to which we are enslaved, is the big reveal. That’s not a spoiler, as you’ll notice from the start that the show and its audience is being recorded on an iPhone on a tripod mount. It’s a wee device, of course, but its power is prodigious – and growing. At least that’s how Butler would have seen it as he placed his machine age within the context of Darwinian selection. Can, or should, machines develop consciousness? Who’s doing the colonising now – white men and soldiers, or computers and informatics?
A working magic lantern is one reason I chose to see this show, and that’s reason enough in my book. The other is co-producer Magnetic North’s A Walk at the Edge of the World, and again they have delivered an ingenious, marginally far-out work, which is actually highly pertinent and centred.
This show is described as “head-scratching”. And yes, it is puzzling, but it is also illuminating (ha!), literary and entertaining. And you will want to go read some Samuel Butler.