Stef Smith’s Girl in the Machine is an emotionally and intellectually intense two-hander about the shifting nature of our relationships to technology and human bodies. Working through an aesthetic and tone familiar to fans of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, Girl in the Machine tells the story of Owen (Michael Dylan) and Polly (Rosalind Sydney), whose relationship disintegrates when Black Box, a headband that induces it’s wearer into a soma-esque state, arrives in their home. This new technology forces a divide between them when both find different answers to the same question: would you want to live for ever? Yes, or No?
The allusions to Black Mirror are inevitable given the quality of the writing, and the lightness with which it moves between different contemporary concerns, establishing a narrative that is at once both familiar and terrifying. Whether it is the ping of a notification, the chips embedded in their arms, the repeated cycles of anxiety and exhaustion, the world we are presented with feels complete; culminating in an end-point that is entirely visible from our current vantage point. Most of all it’s the loneliness that feels most acute. Neil Warmington’s stage divides the audience in two, meaning that when Owen laments that “There are so fucking many of us and yet we can manage to feel so alone,” it is impossible for your gaze not to drift away from the stage to the blurred faces staring back at you, those that seem so far out of reach.
The presence of the Black Box, and indeed its performance, offers an interesting critique of recent movements towards integrating technology and ideas of “wellness”, part of a wider trend to minimize anxiety within the individual, rather than to interrogate the wider conditions that create this anxiety. The technology in question, voiced with the uncanny geniality of Siri or HAL 9000 by Victoria Liddelle, is brilliantly staged, giving space to Smith to write delicate monologues which enact Polly’s relaxation through a language that seems to divorce herself from her body, a poetry that hovers somewhere above the character, beyond a space where it is necessary for words to be spoken and heard.
Orla O’Loughlin’s directs Smith’s text in a way that makes it feel immediately physical, drawing attention to the different intimacies possible between humans and machines. Throughout their relationship Owen and Polly continually shift positions in a dance of exchanged touches and negotiated moments of contact. Watching the couple move I feel a sexuality that speaks before my cognition, an affective bridge appearing between the bodies on stage and mine in the audience. I feel these touches, I sense these movements. There is nothing worth knowing that I’m not feeling.
Then this intimacy, this immediate sexuality, is arrested by the ping of a notification. A body curls up, a head lowers to a screen; a stasis emerges in the wake of a mind now accelerating through cyberspace. Watching Polly and her tablet is to watch the world coming to a standstill, pausing on its axis. Something is severed and a gap of feeling opens between my body and hers, a gap I can only narrow through cognition, through thinking “what is it she is looking at?” Sydney’s incredibly nuanced performance reveals the particularly private and exclusionary relationship humans have with their smartphones, tablets and screens. One that is difficult to access on the level of felt experience.
The assuredness with which movement is considered throughout the work means that the several ‘movement sequences’ that punctuate the work are a surprising inclusion. These scenes are presented as an additional way to examine the dynamics of this relationship, for example drawing attention to Polly’s ability out-run Owen, to work at greater speeds. Nevertheless, the radically different quality of these scenes causes them to sit a little awkwardly in the wider work, unhelpfully rupturing a dramaturgy that is otherwise seamless, With so much already going on, with the text and its performance doing so much work, these scenes fall a little flat.
Nevertheless, the lasting memory of the work is the image I first meet upon entering into the space: a giant rusted metal shipping container, emblazoned with the initials G.I.T.M and Stef Smith’s name. It is a fascinating object to be confronted with, one that is totally over-the-top and bombastic (indeed, beyond sliding back to reveal the stage, it serves no other purpose). Moreover as a gesture it feels like the Traverse is putting their money where the mouth is, placing the writer literally centre-stage, in fucking massive letters. That Girl in the Machine exists and that Stef Smith has written it feels like a big deal, an event that this institution is thoroughly invested in. The passion and support afforded to playwrights by the Traverse is, within Scotland at least, incredibly welcome, both for the development of new work and for audiences keen to see it.
Girl in the Machine is on until 22nd April 2017 at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. Click here for more details.