So bizarre and unlikely is the story behind the creation of this play that one wonders whether writer Jonathan Holloway has time-travelled himself!
In 1895, HG Wells writes his famous novel, The Time Machine, about a man who travels in time to return with a warning from the future. Travel forward 120 years into the future and Creation Theatre produces a site-specific play at The London Library, inspired by the novel but with a particular focus on the possibility for ecological, technological and medical issues to bring about a future, global catastrophe.
Opening at the end of February to good reviews, The Time Machine is forced to cut short its run…due to a global, medical catastrophe caused by ecological issues, spread by technology. As if that were not enough, the original play had people being able to travel through time and space through the use of the keyword ‘Zoom!’
I’m tempted to say you couldn’t make it up but, literally, they did.
I was due to see the original myself when the ‘rona’ put the kibosh on it. For many theatre companies who have found themselves in a similar position, this is literally where the story ended but, in a case of art imitating life imitating art, Creation Theatre have lived up to their name and created…well, put simply they created a version of their show online. Less simply, I think they might have created a show that is perhaps something genuinely new in theatre – but we’ll come to that later.
This online version of The Time Machine is not a direct adaptation of Wells’ novel, though certain elements and themes of the original are certainly present. So what exactly was this online show like?
After initially being emailed my ticket, I received a further email containing a Zoom meeting link scheduled to start at 7pm, with instructions that I should have handy a ‘timeless item’ and a ‘glamorous disguise’. Equipped with a wallet, sunglasses and a fez, I logged in just before the allotted time. After a few minutes in an online waiting room, with a purely text introduction that made me feel like I was twelve years old and sitting in front of my dear, old ZX Spectrum, the video feeds kicked in and we were off.
The premise of The Time Machine is that humanity’s actions – and inaction – in the present day has led to a catastrophe in the year two thousand three hundred. To warn us of this, and to avert this doom, we are taken through time, and alternative timelines, by the Time Traveller, played very well by several actors, who switch back and forth into the role throughout the play: Paul Taylor, Funlola Olufunwa, Rhodri Lewis, Clare Humphrey and Leda Douglas.
The Time Traveller is assisted by a human-looking computer, played wonderfully by Graeme Rose, who provides both guidance and a character for the Time Traveller to interact with until they meet the DRSI, convincingly portrayed by Sarah Edwardson, a scientist who explains just how devoid of ethics the nexus between government, science and corporations has become, providing the theme of the play and, for the audience, a big moral question right at the end where you have to click to make your choice.
The triumph of this production is the way it properly embraces the technology. By switching between speaker view (the person speaking) and gallery view (live video thumbnails of all those watching), one gets a more communal experience than a more typical one-way broadcast. An innovative use of Zoom’s breakout rooms was used to split the storytelling (two groups followed different paths).
While I usually loathe audience participation, the very mild, distanced version used in this production (e.g. dressing up for a nightclub) further enhanced the communal feel. The most notable application of technology was the use of sound and special effects, such as psychedelic (and even animated) backgrounds, and the Computer’s disembodied head floating on the screen. One cannot but feel that these are just the first steps along a path offering new, technological opportunities for theatre.
To manage all this, especially in such a geographically distributed and isolated situation, high praise is due to Ryan Dawson Laight (Set & Costume Designer), Ashley Bale (Lighting Designer), Matt Eaton (Sound Designer), Stuart Read (Video Designer) and director Natasha Rickman.
The overall feeling of watching The Time Machine was a sort of technological verfremdungseffekt. While I personally don’t subscribe to Brecht’s alienation theory, in this instance the non-naturalistic nature of the play meant that a time-travel narrative worked more effectively than it would have in a physical theatre.
While The Time Machine is highly deserving of praise, it is not without potential shortcomings. The play is a sort of extended, semi-interactive, philosophical enquiry, resulting in no character development, little conflict or drama, and little escalation, as one would generally expect in a traditional play. I say potential shortcomings because, of course, this is not a traditional play.
Creation Theatre has eschewed straightforward streaming of a staged play, which would have ticked all the traditional boxes for drama, and tried something totally new. The fact is that these criticisms are compensated for by the new, highly engaging format, which maintains one’s interest and attention. I hugely enjoyed it and marvelled at its originality.
Indeed, it is this question of how to evaluate The Time Machine where things become really interesting. What was it that I saw? The superficial answer is ‘a play’ but I was on my own in a room. The actors and audience that I was watching were distributed across the country – perhaps in other countries.
Even were I to say ‘I watched a performance’, I’m really saying that I listened to noises from my speakers and observed shifting patterns of liquid crystal on my laptop screen.
You could say that watching National Theatre At Home is no different but that was a recording of a live, physical event. By contrast, The Time Machine, as a performance, exists nowhere, the actors and audience members only coming together as a sort of virtual gestalt to create this performance in a digital non-space. While the actors undoubtedly gave good performances, what, strictly from my point of view, had I literally been applauding? The arrangement of packets of data!
My purpose in making these observations is to make the genuine suggestion that Creation Theatre, in an instance of nominative determinism, may genuinely have created an entirely new kind of theatre (certainly I have never seen anything like it).
Video conferencing is not new, theatre streaming is not new, people interacting with other people over the Web is not new, live performance online is not new, video effects are not new, but I believe that in bringing all of these existing uses of technology together, they really have created something so new that I’m not entirely sure we can call it theatre. Theatre where we all gather and interact yet no-one is present? Theatre where audience and actors are both there and not there? What would the Greeks have called this? Atelotheatre?
The Time Machine was a lot of fun and a highly novel experience, with properly intelligent use of technology (I speak as a software engineer) and really good performances considering the actors were alone and distributed in different locations. Taking the catastrophe that is Covid-19 and producing anything from it, let alone something so new and original, is hugely admirable, particularly when the pandemic has taken its mental toll on so many people. To quote Wells himself:
‘We were making the future,’ he said, ‘and hardly any of us troubled to think what future we were making. And here it is!’
Disclaimer: I attended this virtual performance thanks to a complimentary ticket arranged by Leda Douglas, who appeared last year in a short play that I wrote.