Michael Sabbaton and Harrogate Theatre
The Studio, York Theatre Royal
A man lies in a dingy ship’s quarters, a sack over his head and a circling, swelling soundscape growing in intensity as he starts to twitch, moan and ramble. We’re in the early 19th century, and when the man, Maelzel (Michael Sabbaton), begins to speak, he talks to a disembodied wooden head perched precariously atop a chessboard.
So begins Sabbaton’s one-man show, based on the true story of Johann Maelzel and his amazing “thinking machine”, the mechanical, (supposedly) chess-playing “Turk” of the title. Designed and built by Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen to entertain the Austro-Hungarian court, this was ostensibly an automaton which would take on all-comers at chess. In fact, the device turned out to be a cunning fake, but not before it had fooled Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin, and attracted the close scrutiny of Edgar Allan Poe.
In Sabbaton’s version of the story, the Turk’s later owner, the German inventor and showman Maelzel, is reaching the end of his life, locked in his cabin, surrounded by booze and the memorabilia of his triumphant tours with the device. The body and workings of the machine are, we’re told, locked up in the various crates that litter the stage, but its head is on constant display, and the recipient of much of the play’s dialogue.
The protagonist is a wretched figure, phlegmy, feverish and forcing his words out through the pain of alcohol poisoning. Sabbaton is an utterly committed performer, with his rich voice carrying much of the weight of the narrative and sustaining interest in the tale. For much of the show’s two-hour duration, he is confined to a single spot, directing the majority of the text directly to the head, which he cradles, cajoles and curses.
This setup is itself both a blessing and a curse. The head makes an eerie, uncanny-valley focus for Maelzel’s story, his raging and regrets. As mentioned, Sabbaton is a powerful performer who throws himself into the role throughout. But the show feels long for a studio piece, and the confined nature of the setting and form—barring moments of cod-vaudeville song set to pre-recorded backing tracks—means that the performance feels quite samey throughout.
This often-intense monologue is clearly the product of scrupulous research and thought, and contains many beautifully crafted lines and resonances. But structurally, the piece circles around rather aimlessly, with progress made by punning leaps rather than character or plot development.
It falls, then, into a common trap of the hermetically-sealed monologue: there’s no new information being presented to the protagonist. The contrast that leaps to mind is with Hamlet, clearly a beloved model of Sabbaton’s. Shakespeare’s soliloquies show us characters in action, even at their most indecisive or inward. Hamlet faces internal struggle through speech acts: he decides things and undergoes change, something inherently lacking in The Turk’s form.
The punning, associative links by which the play progresses are often linguistically pleasing—“poor wine” becomes “pour wine”, as Maelzel helps himself to another swig. But this structure makes forward momentum difficult and often key information washes over us in our daze of linguistic accumulation.
There is, then, an appeal to much of the writing and I feel this would make a compelling tale on the page. Short story forms admit of circularity and internality much more readily than theatrical ones. So while Sabbaton’s commitment cannot be questioned and the piece offers some well-worked coups de théâtre, ultimately this one-man vehicle is fascinating but hollow, much like the automaton of its title.