The Machine Stops (Letchworth Broadway Theatre, 22nd February 2017)
What draws us to prophetic stories that foresaw our current society and the possibilities it offers? Perhaps instilling fear in ourselves is the only drive to make any change.
This production of E.M Forster's short story from 1909 could be accused of being a cautionary deterrent wearing thin in current society - a dystopian future which predicts our growing reliance on technology is not a new story in a world that edges ever closer to this society. This world premiere follows many a successful production of 1984 and Brave New World - so why is this production different? and why now?
The human race has moved underground due to poor conditions on the earth's surface, with seemingly limited oxygen and sparse vegetation. We now live within 'The Machine' - individual honeycomb shaped pods which deliver all amenities to their inhabitant. The narrative follows a middle-aged female lecturer, swaddled comfortably as she delivers her lectures via video conferencing. Second-hand ideas and intellectual criticism are encouraged, travel and parental duties are not. However, Vashti (the lecturer) does keep in contact with her son, Kuno, via their skype-like communications system. Kuno is a free-thinker, whom does not value the Machine as the rest of humanity does - he scoffs at his mothers worship of the Machine's user manual, despite her ironic protests that "there is no such thing as religion left"1. Kuno is disregarded by his mother for 'disrespecting the Machine' in his fascination with visiting the earths surface. We follow Vashti's eventual journey to visit her son, and as suggested by the ominous title, the eventual breakdown of society as Kuno predicts, 'the Machine is stopping'.
Pilot Theatre Company offers an incredibly engaging and physical production, which is effective at creating an important juxtaposition of human contact versus isolation. The Machine is embodied by two actors, whom rely on each others strength and counter-balance to manoeuvre the fantastic metal structure which makes up the set, bringing The Machine to life with fluid and powerful movements to create the connection of cables and monotonous announcements. This presentation of a powerful, connected machine is in stark contrast to the weak Vashti, barely able to walk as she rarely leaves her chair. It is beautifully ironic that a machine which has caused humans to disregard human touch, heavily depends on physical connections. The set they manoeuvre appears first like a literal honeycomb structure pod, however upon later reflection (and confirmed by the cast in the post-show discussion), it is in fact modeled upon the shape of constellations. The natural wonder that Kuno feels when he first sees the stars is in fact hardened all around him.
Kuno's curiousity and 'everyman' style wisdom can seem to be almost too obvious at times, as his strong moral voice that declares the Machine has "robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation" seems wise beyond his years and knowledge, and an intrusion of Forster's own voice into his text. Vashti is warned by her online 'friends' that Kuno may be part of an uprising, which would explain his knowledge and rebellion-style preaches to his mother. However, interestingly in the post-show discussion the cast agreed they did not think Kuno was part of any rebellion, he had simply inherited his Mothers curiosity and felt nurture unlike others, as Vashti had taken on a parental role despite the Machines insistence that duties were finished at birth. Although this does explain his desire to live with human contact and visit the earth's surface, I did feel that his monologues regarding The Machines society were almost a lecture from Forster on human values, which was unnecessary. I find it tedious when an audiences intelligence is not assumed.
The Machine's proclamations, such as removal of parental duties, suggest that it could be interpreted as an evil presence intent on its own success - certainly implied as it kills strong babies at birth and later re-instates religion to allow people to worship the Machine. This is relatively common theme to many dystopian novels, although of course I cannot accuse it of not being revolutionary as this is written in 1909. However what I found most interesting about The Machine Stops is that the Machine, despite being perceived 'evil', is not presented as a sentient, or malevolent being. Purely practical. Strong babies would not suit the Machine - as stated, "Man must be adapted to his surroundings". There is no authoritative cruelty to fear, like that within 1984. Only fear created by humans of the unknown - dependency on the society around it that someone knows what they are doing. Someone must be fixing the Machine. They endure and ignore the breakdowns of the Machine, as they misguidedly believe in its omnipotence. Obvious parallels can be made with our own society without looking too closely, especially in the political field.
So this a lecture on how we ought to put down our phones and make meaningful relationships? Yes in a way - but it is also an important message, summed up nicely by a cast member, that 'Yes, the world is headed that way. But there are too many Kuno's to let that happen'. It is an aesthetically beautiful production, with a wonderful ensemble performance, held with pace and unpredictability that encourages you to question the status quo. I would highly recommend seeing the production on tour if you can. 2
1. The original short story is available online at http://archive.ncsa.illinois.edu/prajlich/forster.html. All quotation marks indicate a direct quote from the script, as this adaptation to stage by Neil Duffield used only original phrases with no additional dialogue.
2. Tour dates & tickets are available at http://pilot-theatre.com/performance/the-machine-stops
Note - The Machine is capitalised as done so within the script.