Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Girl in the Machine – are we seduced by technology? (Chaos Theory Theatre at Accidental Theatre until 26 March) #ImagineBelfast

Chaos Theory Theatre have bravely picked up Stef Smith’s 2017 play Girl in the Machine with its dystopian vision of a world with state-fitted biometrics, anonymous corporate entities wielding huge power, widespread addiction to small screens, the dopamine hit from notifications, and – crucial to the plot – a naivety about the immersive qualities of virtual reality.
“No one’s ever died with an overdose of email”

When hospital orderly husband Owen brings home a new ‘Black Box’ gadget that was delivered to a dying 140 year old, solicitor Polly quickly dons the VR goggles and becomes immersed in the distracting mix of relaxation and self-actualisation, allowing it to replace her anxiety medication and throwing everything she once valued off-balance.

Amanda Doherty plays Polly who is rapidly ascending the corporate law ladder. Her job has perks, yet she can’t afford the time to avail of them. Amanda creates an at first anxious and tetchy, then manic and unstable character whose mental health collapses leading to desperate actions and consequences.

Meanwhile Owen (James MacKenzie) is at the other end of his career path, glibly describing himself as a “shit-wiper”, but coming across as a humane, hand-holding soul, providing comfort to patients approaching the end of their lives. At times MacKenzie looks like a young and bohemian Jimmy Nesbitt, sitting strumming a guitar, talking about beauty and dragging Polly outdoors. Yet, Owen was the one to feed her gadget addiction by bringing home the new toy.

I found it hard to imagine that Owen and Polly were ever attracted to each other and got married. There’s barely a flicker of affection or warmth, perhaps something that could have been addressed in the early scenes as she reacts to his amorous gesture of preparing her toothbrush!

All the while Callum Janes provides the soothing and trustworthy voice of the Black Box, like a silky soothsayer seducing his victim to the point of total submission.

The black and white costumes stand out against the warmth of the furnishings and the dusty old books filling the wooden bookcase with the colour schemes emphasising the clash between analogue and digital, good and evil.

Other than text messages from an irritated next-door neighbour, we don’t see the couple interact with any other people. We watch as the plot unfolds inside the bubble of their living room, as if peering into this one aspect of their lives through a static webcam.

Director Rachel Coffey confidently works with Stef Smith’s incredibly short scenes, keeping most of the transitions brief, and not letting the 55-minute play’s pace drop.

Accidental Theatre continues to evolve its facilities in the heart of Shaftesbury Square, with good use made of the new lighting bar to create simple scenes. (A lift to provide accessible access to the ‘book bar’ and rehearsal spaces is currently being installed too.)
“I’m not a machine / We’re all contradictory, complex, carbon-based machines”

Staged as part of Imagine! Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics, Girl in the Machine mashes together concerns about big data, privacy, power and mental health and leaves the audience asking who is in control: us or our technology? Do we really know the power of the devices we bring into our homes?

The final performance of Girl in the Machine is at 7.30pm on Tuesday 26 March at Accidental Theatre.

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