Imagine a world where social contact is limited by a raft of regulations. A world where everyone communicates via computer instead of face to face. A world where you can only leave your home with a permit and must wear a mask to do so. Unless you’ve somehow stumbled across this blog in the year 3,000 or so (in which case, hello future humans!), this is probably not all that hard to imagine.
But just six months ago this would have felt like the stuff of a dystopian nightmare. Fast forward to June 2020 and it’s all too familiar. Luckily, we inhabit a world in which the good people of Big Telly Theatre Company are bringing live theatre to people’s living rooms via videoconferencing software, Zoom. And what could be a more fitting tale to tell than a 111-year-old story about individuals living in isolation?
The Machine Stops is Big Telly’s third show made entirely in isolation (this time in partnership with the Riverside Theatre, Coleraine and Ulster University). Based on a short story by EM Forster, it’s set in a world where humans have been driven underground by an uninhabitable Earth. Everyone lives in identical cells, their lives maintained and monitored by a machine that provides comfort, entertainment and a means of communicating with others.
An eerily accurate predictor of the internet, and the world we now inhabit, it’s a cautionary tale about the importance of ideas and the value of human connection. Though it may feel more than just a little on the nose, the Big Telly adaptation nonetheless manages to create the theatrical escapism and closeness that so many of us are craving by making us part of a story about being kept apart.
The story centres around Vashti (Anna Healy) and her son, Kuno (Gary Crossan). Vashti is quite happy to have her environment controlled by the omnipotent machine. She doesn’t have to go anywhere or think for herself, and there’s plenty of entertainment available. Her rebellious son, Kuno is less keen on having his surroundings maintained by The Machine and his life controlled by the corrupt Central Committee. He wants to see his mother. He wants to go outside. He wants the reproductive rights that have been denied due to his undue size and strength. Can he convince Vashti to travel to see him? Will he manage to travel to the surface of the Earth? And can he exploit the weaknesses in The Machine to make it stop and restore humanity?
The audience gets involved early on, when we meet The Operator (Nicky Harley) who runs a switchboard at the heart of The Machine. She ensures that that we are operating Zoom in the way that The Machine requires and checks that we are all in possession of the necessary documents (a copy of “The Book”, whatever that may be, and an “eggression permit” for any household in which there is more than one individual). We soon start to see other audience members on screen, brandishing books and bits of paper to prove that they haven’t broken the rules. After this, the elements of audience participation feel slightly more forced than in our last Big Telly experience, which is probably due to the subject matter. It could be a very dark tale, and Big Telly have understandably erred on the side of entertainment rather than full immersion in the dystopian world of the original novella. It works well in the sections where we experience the TV channels within The Machine (which include a dubious card trick and a hypnotist who has us all doing chicken impressions on one leg) but isn’t quite as convincing when it comes to getting us all involved in the uprising against the powers that be.
The Central Committee are very much caricatures who we can laugh at comfortably from the safety of our homes, although there remains something very sinister about the casual way in which they discuss issues including euthanasia and reproductive rights. We also experience the frustration of a rigged election, but it’s all done in a very light-hearted way that means it doesn’t quite have the power that it could. We remain outsiders looking in and occasionally engaging in some amusing tasks, instead of becoming emotionally and physically invested in Kuno’s cause. Maybe that would be too close to home right now, but it would be interesting to see Big Telly push the boundaries even further and create a truly immersive experience that aims for more than just entertainment.
Putting aside Mummy’s desires for her Zoom experiences to be dark and twisty, this was still another fantastic production from Big Telly Theatre Company, who have really embraced the challenges posed by lockdown and are becoming industry leaders in interactive, online theatre. If you’re missing the community feeling that you get from going to the theatre, we would thoroughly recommend checking out their productions. It’s the closest you will get to being in the room with other people, and you can legitimately clap at your screen at the end because the cast can actually see you! Another good thing about not having to leave the house is that you don’t need to get a babysitter. (We just plonked the munchkins in front of the living room TV while we headed off to the theatre in the kitchen.) And even pets can join in the fun. You don’t have to dress up for the occasion but just remember that The Machine can always see you, so you probably want to be wearing something!
The Machine Stops played on 6 and 7 June 2020. We received complimentary tickets to the performance at 3pm on 6 June in return for a review.