Upending our balaclava-clad expectations from the get-go, Proto-type Theater’s A Machine They’re Secretly Building eschews easy anarchy and invites us through the black mirror into a chilling and surprisingly playful examination of the dangerous psychology behind the web of all-prevalent surveillance technology we’re caught up in everyday.
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The blacked-out bunker of the Tron’s Changing House studio is the perfect setting for Andrew Westerside’s quietly urgent tour through the past, present and future of surveillance. From the espionage glamour of the wartime BRUSA agreement to the Snowden revelations and beyond, A Machine… prods the disparity between ‘safety’ and ‘freedom’ and asks: if we give away every part of ourselves in the name of security, what is there left to protect?
As we enter the theatre, performers Gillian Lees and Rachel Baynton are clad in black, faces hidden behind those familiar Pussy Riot pink balaclavas.
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It’s all a bit unnerving – until the immensely likeable duo remove their headgear and begin, performing Westerside’s exceptionally well-crafted, well-pitched script with warm, compelling urgency.
Picking through the tangled history of Western intelligence gathering could be a task akin to unravelling the world wide web; but Westerside’s narrative is crystalline throughout, avoiding hand-wringing or scaremongering and instead constantly underscored with a refreshing self-awareness that keeps the audience on-side. From code-words written on edible paper, to balloons, Bambi and Bill Gates partying in Mexico, the script always swerves being preachy or patronising. Instead, Lees and Baynton take our hands and lead us sympathetically into a dark new world.
Fittingly, A Machine… also has a star in the form of Adam York Gregory’s hypnotically slick, effective and gorgeously pervasive digital video design. So much more than just a snazzy tool used to relay the Anonymous-style camera feed and pick out damning quotations in angry typography, the digital artwork is so seamlessly incorporated into the action it’s almost another performer.
Note: that’s probably not a coincidence.
Mostly delivered lecture-style, but constantly illuminated by witty theatrical asides, the show is an addictive example of theatre’s ability to clarify and amplify a message. It’s not hard to imagine A Machine… packed up into a suitcase and smuggled into classrooms, festivals (bunkers, back rooms) all over the country. There’s even a leaflet with web links for more info given out at the end, as our ears are still ringing with Westerside’s eerily plausible projections of our future technological police state.
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The performance is short – only an hour – and really the only downside is that it’s over so quickly. Proto-type’s team have such imagination and clarity of vision; their kind of theatre is a great antidote to 2017’s tangled political and cultural landscape. A Machine They’re Secretly Building is an urgent, lively and entertaining starting point for addressing the issues that affect every one of us, everyday.
(Even if they mostly do it in secret.)
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