The welcome return of the York Theatre Royal means it’s also time to welcome back their intimate Studio venue. Although not quite matching the grandeur of their Main House, the Studio often offers audiences something a bit different to mainstream productions in a place where you’re up close and personal to a production. To mark the return of this space, Pilot Theatre in association with the Theatre Royal have brought to the stage the world premiere adaptation of E.M Forster’s short story The Machine Stops, first published in 1909.
The Machine Stops is set in the distant future, when humanity lives underground in servitude of and dependence on the Machine, a mechanical construct that governs every aspect of their lives. When Kuno (Karl Queensborough) visits the deserted surface of the Earth above, he realises how cold and mechanical life has become. He explains to his mother Vashti (Caroline Gruber) how the artifice of their existence will eventually crumble, and questions an existence outside of the Machine’s confines.
Massive themes and an epic, conceptual play-world: surely The Machine Stops couldn’t fit into the tiny Studio? Well, it did! Pilot Theatre have managed to condense Forster’s short story neatly into a compact 90-minute piece. Neil Duffield’s adaptation is wonderfully executed by the four performers here. Queensborough skilfully captures a repressed inquisitiveness in Kuno, and Gruber as his stubborn mother provides a stark contrast that injects dynamism into the piece. Maria Gray and Gareth Aled as flexible, physical manifestations of the Machine itself are excellent, clambering around Rhys Jarman’s minimalistic metal set to represent a somewhat ominous presence.
Speaking of Jarman’s set design, this is certainly a highlight of the production. It’s cleverly designed, and can be summarised in one word: economical. Comprised of some metal framework and orange hexagons on the floor, it’s a simple yet effective place for the performers to navigate. They take us through numerous different locations within Forster’s world, from antiquated airships to the surface above.
Tying in nicely with Jarman’s set design is Tom Smith’s lighting design, which cogently illuminates areas of the stage and focuses the audience’s attention on specific things. It works perfectly to enhance the performances of the talented cast, and contributes to the various atmospheres of each of the play’s scenes.
Underpinning these atmospheres, and perhaps being the most prominent generator of them, is John Foxx and Benge’s sound design and compositions. A sinister hum and some Darth Vader-esque breathing permeate the little Studio as the audience come in, and throughout the play at numerous points, representing the constant presence of the sinister Machine. Music comes in at just the right points, helping to create a rich aural landscape to be enjoyed by the audience.
All of these design aspects come together to create a visually pleasing, well-considered scenography that perfectly captures Forster’s concerns with humanity’s relationship with technology. It immerses the audience directly into this play-world, and for a tense and engaging 90 minutes, assists the performers in telling a story that’s not only poignant and relevant, but essential to our times.
The Machine Stops is an absolute gem. Pilot Theatre and York Theatre Royal have really nailed it with this one; grappling with themes and issues that permeate throughout our world, they’ve framed Forster’s original story in a wonderfully accessible way. Like all great theatre, it makes you stop and think: I had a moment when I checked my phone right after the performance…
Director Juliet Forster, along with the whole team behind this production, have created something really special that deserves to be seen by everyone.
The Machine Stops is playing at the York Theatre Royal until 4 June before touring the UK. For tickets and more information, see the York Theatre Royal website. Photo: Ben Bentley