Bringing E.M Forster’s short story to life, York Theatre Royal and Pilot Theatre present The Machine Stops. This 90-minute studio theatre piece is Brave New World, 1984, and Wall-E all thrown together. Monologue meets acrobatics, dry comedy meets an eerie electronic soundtrack, and this play is a feast for the senses.
Set in a post-modern, underground world, the location is figured onstage by a complex cage of metal bars and magnetic wires, on a strictly hexagonal floor plan. Lights, movement, and a single chair define different locations. Intelligently directed by Juliet Forster, and Philippa Vafadari, the performers make the most of their limited stage space by exploring vertically, with acrobatic ease.
The electronic soundtrack, provided by Ultravox’s John Foxx and analogue synth specialist Benge, is a seamless highlight of the piece. Omnipresent, backgrounding both the speech and movement sequences, the electronic music becomes a part of the audience’s reality. When I first became acutely aware that the electronic sound had been constant, I felt that I too had become almost desensitised by the omnipresence of the mechanised dystopian ‘machine’. Thus the music functions doubly, creating atmosphere and compounding the political commentary of the piece.
The musical accompaniment is at its most powerful alongside the flawless physicality of the embodied ‘machine’. Two of the four-man company fling themselves around on the scaffold of the set, bringing the internal mechanisms to life. Their presence makes the ‘machine’ a force to be reckoned with. They also provide an impressive spectacle during the somewhat dragging monologue sequences.
In the lead role of Vashti, Ricky Butt is tasked with some challengingly long speeches, all spoken from her centre-stage chair. Her infrequent movements are performed as if stilted and painful, in telling opposition from the fluidity of the machine people. This largely vocal performance perfectly balances emotive storytelling with the desensitised, coldness of this dystopian age.
Playing her son Kuno, Rohan Nedd combines physically challenging interactions with the climbing frame set, with some vivid storytelling of the world beyond. The difficulty lies in performing lyrically descriptive monologues with sincerity—unfortunately this is not always achieved, owing to the breathy, unnatural style adopted.
Through no fault of the actors, the script is simplistic and, at times, so screamingly didactic that it borders on crass. The acrobats (Maria Gray and Adam Slynn) double as choric narrators, with some poetically written speeches. As emotionless, mechanised beings, fully clad in alien-like, grey bodysuits, this unrealistic, to-the-point writing style suits their characters. However, in emotionally charged moments between Vashti and her rebellious son, the script writing somewhat detracts from the performance. The message, regarding the postmodern dependence on technology, is crystal clear. But, in my opinion, the otherwise impressive production would benefit from a little more ambiguity.
The play will tour from 20th February to 8th April, to Nottingham, Letchworth, London, Bury St Edmunds, Colchester, Doncaster, Huddersfield, Newcastle and Coventry. For full details and to buy tickets, visit Pilot Theatre’s website.
Filed under: Theatre & Dance