E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops is adapted for the stage by Neil Duffield and relates to humanity’s growing reliance on technology. The audience are taken into a dystopian world, years in the future and far below the Earth’s surface where “civilization” consists of humans entirely dependent on technology. The Machine controls all, meaning humans no longer need to communicate, feel emotions of any kind, or even move. Vashti (Ricky Butt), a willing slave to the machine is contacted by her sceptical son Kuno (Rohan Nedd), hearing that he has something “tremendous” to tell her. Making the long journey to see him on the other side of the earth, Vashti is outraged to learn of Kuno’s fascination with life beyond the machine, and dismisses his theories entirely. But as the machine starts to show its cracks, Vashti longs to be reunited with her son before the machine stops.
Perhaps it is down to the audiences’ adjustment to E.M Forster’s dystopian jargon, or the nature of the sci-fi subject matter, but this production gets off to a slow start. It feels as though we are being transported into a world, but at a remarkably drawn out pace. Director Juliet Forster does incredibly well, however, in creating a claustrophobic and futuristic prison in which Vashti has become a slave. The direction is punchy and precise. The introduction of the intriguing Kuno also helps inject pace into the production, and this is where we begin to see the flair and robustness of Forster’s writing. Kuno’s monologue about the real world, nature and fresh air resonates as one of the defining moments in the play.
Rhys Jarman’s superb set design is as futuristic as it is practical. It enables the actors to transform the space into completely different environments and – most importantly – it frees up some space for the incredible physical theatre moments. What movement director, Philippa Vafadari, has managed to achieve is create a physical manifestation of a machine that is not pompous or showy, but fluid and ferocious. Whether framing a scene between the two main characters, or telling a story of its own, the physicality in this production is stunning.
Performance wise, Nedd is commanding as Kuno. His innocence as a character is matched by an endearing performance. Butt is also suitably rigid and panicked as Vashni, showing depth towards the end. The highlight is Maria Gray and Adam Slynn as Machine One and Two. They are both absolutely mercurial. They cover the entire space and seamlessly wow the audience with their flexibility, strength, and immense collaboration.
Overall, this production is enjoyable and thought provoking. It isn’t without a few minor flaws, particularly the dragging pace at the beginning, but it certainly captures the audience eventually. The most fascinating aspect of the play is how strongly a classic work of literature still resonates with a modern day audience. The story was first published in 1909, and the message regarding human being’s reliance on technology is more poignant now than it has ever been. Neil Duffield’s adaptation along with Juliet Forster’s direction has reignited an interesting story that probably needs to be heard.
The Machine Stops played at The Jacksons Lane Theatre until March 11.
Photo: Ben Bentley