Review: The Machine Stops

marvels at the genius of E. M. Forster in this beautiful adaptation of The Machine Stops: a spooky prediction of ‘The Social Media Age’

Image: Ben Bentley

Image: Ben Bentley

★★★★☆

The Studio, York Theatre Royal

Exploring what it means to be isolated and utterly dependent on technology, E. M. Forster’s short story The Machine Stops, published in 1909, is uncannily prophetic and highly suited for the theatre of today. Co-produced by York Theatre Royal and Pilot Theatre and adapted by Neil Duffield, Juliet Forster’s world premiere is an insightful and provocative production that effectively captures our fears surrounding the progression of science and its future impact on our sense of self.

Reminiscent of those still used for capital punishment in the US, the chair was an apt piece of furniture for a play that ponders humanity’s slow death by technology.

Entering the Studio drenched in darkness and greeted with the brooding electronica of John Foxx and Benge’s soundtrack, this is a pessimistic play from the outset. Rhys Jarman’s set comprised of The Machine’s complex metal frame and wires hanging from every crevice, with a leather chair set centre stage. Reminiscent of those still used for capital punishment in the US, it was an apt piece of furniture for a play that ponders humanity’s slow death by technology. As humans retreat to the deepest recesses underground (with the earth’s surface deemed unfit for life, or so they are told), we are privy to a future civilisation wholly reliant on The Machine. And yet in an ingenious element of irony, the play’s Machine was portrayed through human strength. The envious acrobatic skills of Maria Gray and Gareth Aled connecting wires to sockets (and ensuring humans need only lift their fingers) proved a sharp contrast with the physical weaknesses of humanity. So accustomed to having “things brought to them” by The Machine, as opposed to finding them out for themselves, the characters struggle to stand up unaided or pick up something they’ve dropped. Pandering to every perceived need, The Machine provides humanity with food, rest, information and communication even whilst leaving them bereft of physical contact, curiosity and independence, living as they do alone from the confines of their cell or ‘room’. It was Forster himself who later wrote, “Only connect,” a line that seems all the more astute after seeing this prescient work so cleverly adapted.

Forster’s story focuses in on Vashti, played by Caroline Gruber: a middle-aged mother and lecturer. Relinquished by The Machine of her parental duties at the point of birth, Vashti is once again reliant on The Machine for researching and transmitting her second-hand lectures – since primary research is so last civilisation. Vashti’s pretentious airs and high-maintenance outlook on life served as a point of contrast with her inquisitive son Kuno (Karl Queensborough), depicted as the only one daring enough to question the omnipotence of The Machine. Vashti’s growing disbelief towards the possibility of The Machine shutting down did start to grate during the play’s climax, but only because we now live in a world where technology seems indestructible – where we are just as liable to believe its in power over the possibility of failure.

It was Forster himself who later wrote, “Only connect,” a line that seems all the more astute after seeing this prescient work so cleverly adapted.

Kuno is the sole beacon of hope within Forster’s bleak vision. A being whose sense of adventure is “contrary to the spirit of the age” (and Machine), Kuno’s attempts to re-discover his sense of space and physical strength by travelling to the earth’s surface were affecting, if a tad dragged out. The contrast between Kuno’s euphoria and his disaffected mother, wholly uninterested as her son recounts his escapades, was striking but could have appeared more so if the juxtaposition had been slightly hastier. Generally, this lack of pace was the play’s minor flaw in an otherwise profound and beautifully executed piece.

 

 

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