Reviews Published 12 October 2020

Review: To Be a Machine, by Dead Centre (online)

Disembodied voices: Eve Allin writes on Dead Centre’s livestreamed adaptation of a book about making men into machines.

Eve Allin

‘To Be a Machine’ at Dublin Festival. Photo: Ben Kidd

In their new prototype piece, Dead Centre and Mark O’Connell attempt to re-imagine theatre ‘without the hindrance of a body’. Dead Centre has an oeuvre that has consistently toyed with the way that fiction can be its own kind of truth in its retelling and re-construction. ‘To Be a Machine (Version 1.0)’ at the Dublin Theatre Festival is no exception. The live streamed show suits their uncanny ability to push on the thin barrier between reality, theatre, and story. 

Directed by Moukarzel and Kidd, this adaptation of Mark O’Connell’s book To Be A Machine is as an experiment in presenting and enacting a thesis, and this is no bad thing. O’Connell’s book is an exploration of transhumanism: the idea that we (humans) are restricted by our bodies, and can only truly be free once our minds are free from their corporeal cage.

At first, the camera shows only Jack Gleeson, playing O’Connell. He stands in what appears to be a black box theatre, next to a tablet mounted on a stand as tall as him. I feel immediately drawn to him – his calm, almost blissful, tone is so at odds with the words coming out of his mouth. I’ve always loved this about Dead Centre’s work – the controlled delivery abstracted by the chaos of the concept. He speaks out to the screen (and to the at home audience) in a familiar way; he looks directly into the camera so it feels as if we’re making eye contact. He talks about human connection one moment, only to remind us that we’re necessarily, unbearably separate in the next. 

Then, the camera turns around and we see what appears to be multiple tablets, on similar stands, laid out like a theatre audience. On those tablets are our faces. It was an uncanny sensation to sit back and see my face in an audience that didn’t really exist. Except of course in some way it did – those tablets were there in the space, and we were all watching on our own screens. According to Mark, they had taken away the bad bits and kept the good bits about theatre. The clunky cliche of lines like this took away from the weight at the centre of the piece. Yet, when Gleeson hugs a tablet as if it were an audience member, it reminds me of when Dead Centre are at their best; using stunning, strange images to reveal the depths that underlie their work.

Mark tells us that supposedly theatre is a dying medium, and that in some ways he agrees with that, because theatre is the dying medium. We sit in a space, and die together. We die together in real time. And as he said that, I thought that not only do we die, but the art dies too. It exists until the end, when it doesn’t anymore. There is no skipping forward or backwards in theatre, there is only now. In that way, theatre is entirely opposite to the ideals of transhumanism. To be uploaded to a computer is to be without time or place, and to exist indefinitely, without all the difficulty, the restriction, that being alive inevitably brings. Theatre is predicated on the existence of both the body and time; both of which transhumanists believe to be outdated concepts. 

To some extent they’re right. I am not in a theatre. Instead I’m at home precisely because of my body and its relation to every other body on earth. Our own fragility is laid bare when we remember that the only reason we aren’t touching shoulders with strangers is because of our precarious, fleshy exteriors. As Mark says; the human condition is a sub-optimal state. 

Dead Centre manage to capture the dichotomy that sits at the heart of debates like this; that we are caught between the accident of our birth, and the gift of life. They are asking; would you “upgrade” yourself, if you could? Suddenly, rhetoric like “upgrade” puts me on edge – you can’t put bodies, identities into a hierarchy. Mark explains that the men who practise transhumanism (because, as he says, it is almost always men) see the body as a problem waiting to be solved, as if our complicated bodies will somehow be “fixed” when they become an algorithm. They believe that bodies can be improved by being made into machines. For them, our messy, emotional humanness is not useful. It holds us back. Here, Dead Centre might be saying that, in fact, the opposite is true. 

O’Connell, Moukarzel, and Kidd have created something that is self-conscious, whilst also unsettling. It tentatively tries to wrong-foot its audiences, meaning that even though the experience of watching is uncomfortable, the artistic pay off makes it worthwhile. The combination of Gleeson’s strange, authorial presence and the trickery of the technology means that sometimes this show feels a little out of reach – we are held at arm’s length. 

The value and longevity of Dead Centre shows comes from their emotional core, which this piece has a tendency to hide, instead favouring academic observation. And yet, the elegance and wit of the piece does draw me in. Even though we are not present in the room, the audience is a second character in the show (as it always seems to be in Dead Centre’s work). If this company’s work is about making something out of an absence, then To Be a Machine is really about us. 

At the very end of the show, Jack looks away from us in a rare moment of sincerity and smiles with relief at someone off camera. Before I could hold on to it, the glimmer of something true, something human, was gone and I was left alone in an empty room.

To Be A Machine was on as part of Dublin Theatre Festival. More info here


Eve Allin is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: To Be a Machine, by Dead Centre (online) Show Info

Directed by Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd

Written by Mark O’Connell and Dead Centre, based on the book by O'Connell, 'To Be a Machine'

Cast includes Jack Gleeson



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