Radio 4 recently put together a season of work entitled Dangerous Visions, inspired by JG Ballard’s dystopian take on the near future and featuring adaptations of two of his works – Concrete Island and The Drowned World – alongside the responses of five contemporary writers on a similar theme. My favourite of the pieces that I managed to listen to was Graham White’s adaptation of The Drowned World, a moody exploration of a world wracked by solar flares which have caused the flooding of some of the major cities of the world. Not only that, the ecological crisis has brought with it a new evolutionary shift, but one which is regressive as humanity is forced to change in order to survive, even if it means reverting to a more primitive state of being.
Not having read the book, I can’t comment on the adaptation but it felt like a slickly told story, motoring through its central premise of the world going backwards, in all senses. We see this primarily through the eyes of lovers Beatrice and Kerans, the ever-excellent Hattie Morahan and James D’Arcy both in glorious vocal form, as their passion becomes increasingly primal. But also through the experiences of the people around them as Kerans is part of a scientific expedition to explore one last time before the newly watery world is abandoned. And there we see human behaviour degenerating, especially in the shape of Tim McInnerny’s pirate-like Strangman, out for selfish gain no matter the consequences. A powerfully evocative reading of the story makes this a recommended listen.
I was less enamoured of Concrete Island, a take on the Robinson Crusoe story updated to a modern-day motorway where a cocky young architect finds himself marooned in a kind of no-man’s-land after he crashes his car. Its saving grace is the casting of Andrew Scott as the central character, raging vibrantly against his situation yet soon trying to ingratiate himself with the others he finds there, his quicksilver changes in mood make this a hypnotic listen even if the writing may grate a little with its insistent unlikeability for almost all its personnel.
And the one play inspired by Ballard that I got round to was Michael Symmons Roberts’ The Sleeper, chosen mainly because Maxine Peake was in the cast, though this isn’t the way one should normally go about these things. The premise here is of a world where no-one sleeps any more – people work 24 hours, hotels are used for meetings and illicit sexual liaisons (nothing much changed there then!) and the mere mention of the idea of sleep sees the government coming down like a ton of bricks on the guilty party. So when Ella, a girl who can actually sleep emerges into the world, she is forced on the run, protected by a group of friends, but there is just too much interest in her to let her slip back into the shadows.
The main interest with The Sleeper comes from its poetic form and the incorporation of an intriguing musical score by Stephen Deazley and performed by the Welsh National Opera Orchestra and Youth Opera. It makes it instantly more fascinating and a much more visceral experience that it would be otherwise, as I’m not entirely convinced it was that strong. The central idea is barely explored – the impact of the population not sleeping hardly touched on – and instead the focus becomes the experience of Ella which never came across as quite as fascinating. I also intensely disliked the narrative device, but I guess that it more personal choice.