Set in a dystopian Earth future, E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops has been adapted for the stage by Neil Duffield and produced by Pilot Theatre. Partway through a UK tour, this week it ran at Highgate’s Jacksons Lane.
For quite some time humans have been living underground, reliant on “the Machine” for every aspect of their existence. It provides them with artificial days and nights, educates them via endless lecture series, and connects them with friends and family. They have no need to leave their hexagonal pods they call home, though the airships are still running in case anyone does feel the need to get out and about – however the species’ muscular strength has been almost wiped out due to lack of exercise, and strong agoraphobic and antisocial tendencies have taken hold. Vashti is contentedly living out her days in seclusion until her son Kuno manages to convince her to visit him on the other side of the world, as he has a revolutionary plan…
The Machine Stops is essentially a modern fable; published in 1909 it was remarkable prescient, as we have developed a huge reliance on technology that is potentially crippling if we lose any elements of it. I’m sure most of us have, at one point or another, felt like it’s the end of the world when we can’t access the internet to get onto social media or the like – and mechanical faults with transport that we depend on is a daily source of frustration for many. It serves as a warning not to treat science as a religion, but instead to keep questioning things and making new discoveries for ourselves.
The hexagonal living quarters are highly symbolic of a beehive, representing humans as the drones who devote their lives to keep the queen bee (the Machine) functioning. It is parasitic and ultimately detrimental to the human race. The Machine is also a good metaphor for governments and those in power. When things start to go wrong, the humans follow protocol and report the faults to the appropriate committee, but slowly grow to accept the new state of affairs. The powers go unchallenged and no one has the courage or initiative to try and make a change. Another highly relevant theme for our time.
This production is part narration from those representing the Machine (Maria Gray and Adam Slynn) and part action. Rhys Jarman’s design presents us with a metallic climbing frame and some hexagonal features; in a very understated way the audience is given a clear idea of what that world could be like. The incorporation of a more physical aspect from the actors representing the machine (dressed head to toe in grey, to blend in with the framework) is suggestive of the Machine developing its own autonomy, as well as being a creative way of showing all of its features. There is some terrific work from movement director Philippa Vafadari to enable this. The original compositions from John Foxx and Benge are just futuristic enough to fit with the feel of the piece, without ever seeming gimmicky or over the top.
There are some great performances from the small ensemble, with Ricky Butt showing Vashti as stubbornly set in her ways and Rohan Nedd bringing across the earnest curiosity of Kuno. The physicality from Gray, Slynn and Nedd is commendable, and makes for a visually engaging production.
My verdict? An eerily prescient tale that is a perfect fit for our time, fusing physicality with electronica – a very important watch.
The Machine Stops ran at Jacksons Lane until 11 March 2017. Full details of its UK tour are available on the Pilot Theatre website.