The Machine Stops
E M Forster, adapted by Neil Duffield
York Theatre Royal and Pilot Theatre
York Theatre Royal Studio
It has long been an ambition of Juliet Forster’s to bring her namesake’s uncharacteristic dystopian short story to the stage. It’s certainly not hard to see modern parallels in the tale’s striking imagery of disconnected individuals placidly consuming each other’s recycled lecture content from the sealed isolation of their air-conditioned rooms.
Neil Duffield’s adaptation stays close to much of the dialogue of the original, excising some anachronisms but retaining some predictions which seem wider of the mark: airships take an apparently speedy two days to traverse the globe, and communications take place verbally via Skype-like video rather than the more common textual messages with which we’re bombarded. But this works well to keep the production in the uncanny valley of near-future metaphor and adds richness to our speculations on the scenario presented and the possible parallels with our own society.
Also aiding this sensation is the aesthetic, which is firmly rooted in the wobbly 1970s sci-fi of Logan’s Run and Doctor Who. Everyone is beige-grey and jumpsuited and the music, by analogue synth pioneers John Foxx and Benge, underscores the story with the thrumming oscillations of the Moog.
The set design—hexagonal rooms "like the cell of a bee" (or countless '70s sci-fi corridors) and coloured cables plugged and re-plugged into the mainframe—also echoes the analogue-future aesthetic of the synth.
Operating these cables are Maria Gray and Gareth Aled, the eerie personification of the central, controlling Machine itself, narrating and controlling the story from their insect-like, acrobatic vantage points atop the steel frame of the set. The adaptation cleverly physicalises the Machine’s mechanisms in this way, and the two performers carry out some audacious, striking, well-controlled feats of athleticism, often while also delivering dialogue.
The human characters in the piece are portrayed by Caroline Gruber and Karl Queensborough. These figures are often mouthpieces for the plot and setting rather than characters in any compelling sense, but both actors are strong and sympathetic presences. Both do convincing physical work, too, in very different ways, and Queensborough’s attempts to escape the underground world of the Machine on his own terms are satisfyingly dramatised.
It is setting and metaphor which dominate here, though, and the human tale of Vashti (Gruber) and her son Kuno (Queensborough) is secondary to the questions raised. Some of these may feel somewhat well-worn, and some of the piece’s challenges and prophecies have been superseded by the more biting and better-known 1984 and Brave New World.
While Rhys Jarman’s design and Philippa Vafadari’s movement direction combine to produce some memorable imagery, they could at times be better supported by Tom Smith’s lighting design, admittedly making some good use of limited resources. The wash often feels too generalised and the video work, credited to Golden Meat / Lumen, is not well-defined enough to provide anything other than a messy bleed. There are powerful moments which support the imagery of the tale, but overall it feels there are missed opportunities to support the overall atmosphere of the piece. Perhaps on tour the lighting will find more technically sympathetic spaces than the still-unforgiving Studio.
The fundamental choice to set the stage adaptation in a nostalgic retro-future is productive, though it risks alienating the teen audiences to whom Pilot habitually addresses its productions. Then again, perhaps the aesthetic of shifting cables to connect teleconference calls and the soundtrack of humming, throbbing Moogs may just provide the perfect distancing effect for generations raised on wifi, instant message and autotune.
In opening space for imagination and analogy, this adaptation raises questions different to those of the original text, but ones which prove nonetheless stimulating and well-pitched in Juliet Forster’s thought-provoking production.
Reviewer: Mark Smith