Monday, June 08, 2020

The Machine Stops – the humans may be slaves to technology in E M Forster’s classic tale, but Big Telly prove again that they are masters of Zoom theatre

E M Forster’s The Machine Stops is a science fiction novella first published in 1909. 111 years later, it reads like a short story from 2020 that fell through a wormhole into the past. In it, people live indoors and are content to be discouraged from venturing out onto the unsafe surface of the Earth. In their underground bunkers, they are consumed by instant messaging and instant delivery of services, and prefer recycled ideas and thinking (which they don’t perceive as stale) over personal experience of the unknown. They have learned to defer to the Machine and the ever-present Book of rules and regulations.

Big Telly Theatre and its artistic director Zoe Seaton are making a name for themselves with their innovative Zoom theatre productions during lockdown. The format is not that new, but the skill with which Big Telly are adapting and stretching the conferencing solution surely pushes them to the forefront of this socially distanced form of theatre.

Their adaptation of The Machine Stops sets up two parallel narratives. Kuno (played by Gary Crossan) invites his isolating mother to travel across the world to visit him. There are things he wants to explain that he cannot divulge through the Machine’s communication device. Vashti (Anna Healy) is at first reluctant to leave the security of her room. We are introduced to the Committee, the pious guardians of the Machine and the Book’s policies for living and maintaining order. All the while, the Operator (Nicky Harley) mediates between the audience, the Machine and its Committee. Jonny Cameron, Emily Lamey, Rosie McClelland, Niamh McEnhill and Christina Nelson complete the ensemble.

You can read Forster’s 12,000-word short story in a little over an hour. This theatrical production has a similar run time and doesn’t over-labour the parallels between Forster’s vision and the present day. Inciting revolution to rise up against the Machine is a neat participatory device, though the time carved out to introduce the Committee somewhat detracts from a longer examination of the off-on-off relationship between mother and son.

Big Telly’s last production, Operation Elsewhere, thrived on the company’s love of high energy, madcap shenanigans. The Machine Stops could have been an earnest production consumed by the grey of Forster’s tale of humans becoming slaves to technology. Yet Seaton’s adaptation finds space for colour and humour with props being ‘passed’ between cast members and a tea-pouring ceremony that could have been borrowed from Alice in Wonderland.

McClelland, Nelson, McEnhill and Cameron portray officiousness and privilege with ludicrous believability, while Harley transitions (along with the audience) from compliance to non-compliance. Crossan and Healy are convincing as Kuno and Vashti, a family like many others with wildly differing worldviews.

The Machine Stops is visually much more ambitious that Operation Elsewhere, with a clever sense of depth achieved in some scenes by inserting layers of David Morgan’s beautiful steampunk props (and some repurposed household furniture and fittings) in-between the cameras, actors and green-screened backdrops. It’s a sign of Big Telly’s increasing confidence with Zoom. Kuno’s chamber even plays with perspective in a way that might open up the possibility of much-needed movement in future works (if cast members’ spare rooms allow). I know it’s theatre and not film, but watching it on a screen means that comparisons are hard to ignore, and the consistent use of medium close-up shots – which often mirroring the pose of audience members (if you sneak a quick peek at the gallery view) – means that over the hour-long performance, the fun props can only go so far to distract from the lack of on-screen physicality and interaction.

Staring at the screen is tiring. Video conference theatre lacks the escapism and immersion of leaving your day behind and sitting in the stalls of a theatre (or the plush chairs in a darkened cinema screen). The mechanics of the production absorb a lot of audience energy that otherwise should have been devoted to absorbing the plot, the dialogue and the themes.

With an audience normally trapped in an auditorium until the interval or the final curtain, only the boldest – and there are always a few in every show – will pick up their phone mid-performance to check their messages. Knowing that the audience are watching from the comfort of their own home – though the setting doesn’t add much intimacy – perhaps on a laptop screen rather than a big television, this production works hard to keep the audience’s attention focussed on the story they want to tell. As lockdown continues and future productions embrace video conferencing, the periodic checkpoints that require the audience to hold household items up to the screen or (as in The Machine Stops) join in a revolution (which creates a lovely moment of interaction) may become tiresome. Yet they may also be unavoidable.

With all that said, the feeling of peril that the whole performance could collapse with one wrong click of a mute button or the selection of the wrong virtual backdrop gives shows a deliciously dangerous edge that is rarely felt in a physical theatre. While The Machine Stops again has Zoom wrangler Sinead Owens on hand to smooth over any technical lumpy moments, Seaton admitted that Zoom performances were ‘terrifying’ during the Meet the Makers Q&A that followed Sunday’s matinee performance. Although the cast and crew in a more traditional situation may also be flying by the seat of their pants without the paying public realising.

Forster’s prediction of how technology could destroy the human soul is great material from which to have crafted a lockdown show. The compliance culture being encouraged by governments and public health experts has practically issued us with a five step ‘Book’ of what we can and cannot do. Many of us are incredibly attuned to social media sentiment and share – online and offline – what other people post rather than engaging with the issues of the day ourselves. Yet shouldn’t we be more like Kuno and seek to jump out of the fast current and explore what’s up on the surface first-hand before jumping to conclusions?

Many other theatre companies have gone into hibernation or branched out into recording solo skits and monologues or screening archive recordings of old shows. Under the circumstances, all these options are quite valid, but Big Telly are to be applauded for tearing up the rule book and instead adapting their experience of games and outdoor theatre to find ways to keep making live theatre, to keep taking risks – technical and dramaturgical – to discover what works and what doesn’t in pandemic storytelling. Under the circumstances, this production of The Machine Stops keeps true to most of the original story and delivers engaging performances that test out the constraints of Zoom as a medium. Neither are perfect, but in lockdown conditions, both far exceed the alternative of nothing.

Keep an eye on the Big Telly’s website for any future performances of The Machine Stops and other works in production. The Machine Stops is produced in partnership with The Riverside Theatre and Ulster University, and in association with The Marketplace Theatre Armagh, The Portico of Ards, Newry, Mourne and Down District Council and Ards and North Down Borough Council.

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