Understandably, I find myself running a little behind on my reviews – this one, however, will probably be one of the more surreal things to have to write up. Press night was Wednesday 11 March 2020 (again, sorry): the day the World Health Organisation conferred pandemic status on the current COVID-19 outbreak. Why is that relevant to a theatrical adaptation of HG Wells’ The Time Machine? Because the concept of the novella runs through the play, but instead of retelling the story it has been thrust into our time and beyond, taking small groups of time travellers on a journey through the London Library in a bid to expose the catastrophes that await if people continue to meddle with the past (whether it’s for their own personal gain or to try and prevent a terrible event from ever taking place).
Following the performance it was confirmed that the play was written months before the run; obviously during rehearsals things can be altered or slightly re-emphasised to make them more relevant, but there’s only so much tinkering that can go on. It was freaky leaving the library that night having experienced something so on the nose (the notes I jotted down on the train home confirm my reaction), but thinking back to it now..?
The basic concept is this: people’s trips into the past have completely messed up the world we all thought we knew, thanks to even the smallest change. For example, Oliver Hardy didn’t become one of the early film stars, instead he was a scientist involved in the Manhattan Project. Our guide for the evening subscribes to the Multiverse Theory; each change causes a new parallel universe to spring up, and you never know in which one you’ll find yourself when you return to your own time – a common side effect is the frequent and random change in the colour of your socks. So much time travel has taken place that it’s now impossible to unmuddle, and an incredibly dark future awaits if people don’t start paying attention – our guide has seen it and she’s terrified what’s in store for humanity.
It’s a promenade production rather than being fully immersive, so the main action on the audience’s part comes from moving around the library from one room to another – in effect getting something of a tour. There is the inevitable problem of people towards the front dawdling rather than realising that there is a time limit to the show and those of us unfortunately stuck at the back are being hurried up… The Morlocks feel slightly incongruous for the most part, probably because they don’t feel at all tangible; in the book the idea of them is quite terrifying and creates a real sense of foreboding. Perhaps if The Vaults (or somewhere similar) were hosting it, that feeling could have been possible, though you’d then miss out on the historic setting of the library and the intrigue of going up and down levels.
It is maybe a little bit of a lecture in places, but frankly people seem to need that at the moment as ‘suggesting’ and ‘encouraging’ isn’t getting us anywhere. There do seem to be a lot of issues and topics competing for attention, but they all come under the umbrella of people ignoring expertise, with their ‘I know better’ attitude; whether it’s anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, or rich people continuing to mess with time travel just because they can afford to. The effects that a growing distrust of science can have are borne out in the future our guide sees, and tries to warn the population about – but, with a hint of Orwell and the Fox ‘News’ approach, the truth is not allowed to be spoken on TV so the general population continues to live in ignorance. That’s also a vision of what our state broadcaster would become if the BBC ended up being dismantled, leading us further down this slippery slope.
At this point it’s hard to write about this as a piece of theatre, when really for many it was a warning that came just that little bit too late. This is the definition of a timely, relevant production, unnerving in the way that the radio adaptation of HG Wells’ famous The War of the Worlds (voiced by Orson Welles) scared the living daylights out of listeners in 1938. The time travel is just one tiny unbelievable element in a sci-fi story that encroaches more on the territory of fact.
Jonathan Holloway has brought a great adaptation to one of the more unconventional of stages, directed thoughtfully by Natasha Rickman, and produced by Creation Theatre. What our rich and careless 1% wouldn’t give for time travel right now, eh?
My verdict? Theatre doesn’t get much more timely than this – an eerie prediction of humanity’s journey, in a thoughtfully-directed promenade production.
The Time Machine was due to run at the London Library until 5 April 2020. If you have booked a ticket you can experience the adventure online or transfer your ticket to the run at the Oxford Museum of Natural History – alternatively you can donate the cost of your ticket towards funding this and future productions.