Pilot Theatre pride themselves on being advocates of digital technology in the arts and aim to produce work that connects with younger audiences, so it no surprise that their current project is an adaptation of EM Forster’s The Machine Stops, a pioneering short story that predicted certain technological advances, such as instant messaging, and raised concerns with the lack of meaningful communication in the digital age.
In a post-apocalyptic world where humanity can no longer survive on the surface of the earth, Vashti (Ricky Butt) and her son Kuno (Rohan Nedd) live in isolated cells underground, with all of their needs met by an omnipresent machine. It is an unsettling story about our dependency on technology that resonates greatly with the modern world, and Pilot Theatre’s technical transformation of the text has a sensationalist quality that ‘connects’ with the audience on many levels.
It is an unsettling story about our dependency on technology that resonates greatly with the modern world, and Pilot Theatre’s technical transformation of the text has a sensationalist quality that ‘connects’ with the audience on many levels.
‘Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee.’ Forster writes, and designer Rhys Jarmen fully realises this fictitious setting with a compact metal structure, like an industrial web, littered with cables that dangle down towards a solitary chair. Director Juliet Forster has two of the performers, Adam Slynn and Maria Gray, act as part of the machine, speaking in robotic unison and acrobatically moving around the structure like electromagnetic waves. As a result, the machine is skilfully brought to life, so that it serves as a character in, and of, itself throughout the performance.
Ricky Butt gives an overwrought performance as Vashti, repeatedly straining to get out of her chair and insistent in her worshipping of the machine. The contrast between her obdurate lack of emotion and Rohan Nedd (Kuno) passionate rebellion, forces the spectator to consider what it means to forge meaningful relationships in a society where a person can have hundreds of ‘friends’ on social media without ever being in the same room. ‘But I can see you,’ Vashti says to Kuno as a video call is projected onto the wall of her room, but Kuno longs to feel the comfort of his mother, not learn of it through distant discussion.
The loud and jumpy music accompanying the characters while they are on transport is particularly effective, enhancing the absurdity of their anxiety over public transport, sunshine and touching.
The performance’s eerie electronic soundtrack, composed by John Foxx, helps to build tension towards Kuno’s first visit to the surface of the earth. The loud and jumpy music accompanying the characters while they are on transport is particularly effective, enhancing the absurdity of their anxiety over public transport, sunshine and touching. Rohan Nedd’s ascent of the vent as Kuno is a highlight of the performance, combining impressive gymnastic strength with a hearty and moving delivery of dialogue that pays tribute to the humanist writing of Forster’s original.
The use of lighting is used admirably to transcend Forster’s recurring motif of night and day, at times the audience are plummeted into a darkness that exaggerates the character’s isolation in their underground prisons, whilst stark spotlights are used to depict the brightness and opportunity of the outside world. As the actors stretch their focus upwards, towards the lighting rigs, the audience really get a sense of being contained underground.
The Machine Stops is a chilling piece of work that encourages interaction and intimacy in a technologically progressive society where people are becoming increasingly isolated from one another, making it the perfect story to tell in the theatrical form, with its emphasis on the shared experience. It leaves the audience entertained, unsettled, and – crucially – not reaching to turn their phones back on at the curtain call.
Pilot Theatre will be performing ‘The Machine Stops’ at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry until Saturday 8th April. More information, including an Education Pack with interviews with the cast and creatives about this performance, can be found on Pilot Theatre’s website: www.pilot-theatre.com