The Machine Stops – Jacksons Lane Theatre, London

Writer: EM Forster
Adaptor: Neil Duffield
Director: Juliet Foster
Reviewer: Stephen Bates

We think of EM Forster and we think of stories about the English upper classes at home and abroad in the early part of the 20th Century. Science fiction we regard as the territory of his contemporary, HG Wells, so it comes as a surprise to discover that Neil Duffield’s 85-minute play is an adaptation of a 12,300-word short story by Forster, The Machine Stops, originally published in 1909. Even more surprisingly, Duffield suggests to us that Forster could have inspired the invention of Skype.

tell-us-block_editedForster imagines a future in which Earth’s human population has been driven underground to live in isolation, discouraged from direct contact with others and from travelling. There is no need for people to go to see things when those things can come to them in their own subterranean cells. It is an Orwellian nightmare in which the Machine, a sort of forerunner to Big Brother, controls everyone’s lives. The story has two protagonists: Yoshti is a lecturer on “the Australian Period”, communicating remotely with the outside world and conforming strictly to the rules of the Machine; her rebellious son Kuno lives on the far side of the planet and is eager to break free from the Machine to explore life on the surface.

Using a prototype of video chatting, Kuno persuades Yoshti to board an airship and visit him so that he can relay to her the joys of seeing the sun and making direct contact with real life. Essentially, the original novella centres on a conflict of ideologies and Duffield’s difficulty in translating this to the stage comes with generating dramatic tension. The adventurous youthful optimism of Rohan Nedd’s Kuno is endearing, but Ricky Butt’s Yoshti is an icy figure indeed, drained of all signs of maternal affection. This interpretation of the character takes literally the Machine’s rule that parental responsibilities end with giving birth and the absence until near the very end of an emotional connection between mother and son leaves a hole at the heart of this adaptation.

Fortunately, Juliet Foster’s vivid and imaginative production offers more than a little compensation for weaknesses in the drama. Rhys Jarman’s set design resembles a large climbing frame constructed around a small cell for a single occupant. Two performers (Maria Gray and Adam Slynn) clamber acrobatically around the frame and they, aided by Tom Smith’s superb lighting design and eerie music composed by John Foxx and Benge, create striking impressions of the Machine in motion.

The details of the future foreseen by Forster may not have been as specific as shown in this production, but still his prescience is astonishing. Effectively, he predicted an age when our lives would be run by a machine, encompassing instant messaging, telecommunications, virtual reality and commercial air travel, over a century ago and then he went on to ask what would happen if the machine was to malfunction and stop. Chillingly, that is something that remains to be figured out.

Runs until 11 March 2017 and then continues to tour | Image: Ben Bentley

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