THE MACHINE STOPS
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 4th April, 2017
This production from Pilot Theatre comes to the end of its tour at the Belgrade’s B2 studio. Given its themes, you would think the original short story on which the play is based was written five minutes ago. The story is astonishingly prescient and no less pertinent having first seen the light of day in 1909. That’s 1909 not 2009.
We are in a post-apocalyptic future. Humanity lives underground, each individual in their own room or cell in which they find all their needs fulfilled by the ‘Machine’ that sustains them. All communication is done via personal screens – in this way, people have contacts the whole world over but they never meet. Sound familiar? Kuno (Rohan Nedd) has other ideas. He believes that humanity has lost something of itself because we no longer interact in person. He’s not wrong. He tries to persuade his mother – the woman who gave birth to him, to be more precise – that there is more to life, that the surface isn’t as barren and toxic as the Machine leads everyone to believe.
The woman – Vashti, played by an excellent Ricky Butt – clings to her blinkered views and complete and blind faith in the Machine as a force for good. She even begins praying to it – in a stark reminder that the divine is manmade. It is only when it’s too late and the Machine breaks down that Vashti realises what has been lost.
It’s an enthralling piece, rich with ideas both in form and content. Maria Gray and Adam Slynn are almost ever-present as parts of the Machine, writhing and contorting in grey bodystockings, in a mesmerising display of acrobatics and physicality. Rhys Jarman’s set consists of a framework that serves as a kind of jungle gym for the Machine parts as well as delineating the limits of the cells. Tom Smith’s lighting makes superb use of darkness for chilling effect, and Juliet Forster’s direction keeps the action taut, the ideas provocative. In fact, only the electronic music seems somewhat dated in its presentation of ‘futuristic’ sounds.
Rohan Nedd portrays Kuno’s rebellious drive and evangelism with verve but it is Ricky Bull’s Vashti who has the stronger impact, like a Brexiteer clinging to the wreckage of civilisation and proclaiming all is well.
Neil Duffield’s adaptation reveals the relevance of the original story – unless we regain our relationship with nature, we are doomed. In these days of unfettered capitalism and climate change denial, the message is urgent and compelling.
And the writer of the original tale, way back in 1909? None other than E. M. Forster! He of Room With A View fame and the source of many other Merchant-Ivory films. This seems as astounding to me as the story itself. Good on you, E. M!