Reviews NationalReviewsYork Published 23 May 2016

Review: The Machine Stops at York Theatre Royal

York Theatre Royal ⋄ 13th May- 4th June 2016

The relentless march of progress: Louise Jones reviews The Machine Stops at York Theatre Royal.

Louise Jones
The Machine Stops at York Theatre Royal. Photo: Ben Bentley.

The Machine Stops at York Theatre Royal. Photo: Ben Bentley.

I’m sure I’m not alone in experiencing that moment of despair when a laptop runs out of battery, leaving its user staring at the black screen helplessly. Despite the world of technology being at “our” fingertips, we can often find ourselves slaves to the machine. I catch myself checking my phone first thing in the morning and last thing at night, or anxiously checking a wifi connection at a party instead of striking up conversation with somebody I don’t know. The internet connects thousands of us and yet we seem less capable of interaction in person – an observation which makes E.M.Forster’s short story The Machine Stops all the more prophetic.

From her underground pod, Vashti (Caroline Gruber) connects with her “250 friends” (somewhat unimpressive to some Facebook users with friend counts of over 1000) from all corners of the world, all thanks to the ever present, ever helpful Machine. In this new adaptation by Neil Duffield, we see Vashti’s existence disturbed by her son Kuno’s radical thoughts. Gruber gives a brilliant performance of a woman who is lauded for her lectures and yet blindly resists any knowledge of a life outside of that created for her by the Machine.

Juliet Forster’s direction foreshadows the rise of the Machine, in particular with regard to its introduction as a religious figure. Attention is immediately drawn to the only book on the stark set – a manual for the Machine which later serves as a Bible. The delicate reverence Vashti shows to the book becomes more of a ritual as she holds it to her chest time and time again in moments of need.

These motifs are played out frequently in the production’s heavy reliance on physical theatre. Gareth Aled and Maria Gray work excellently as parts of the Machine, moving fluidly with a dependence on one another which serves to highlight how weak the Machine is once it begins to deteriorate. However, this distracts from the reading of the Machine as religion: whereas the manual is holy scripture, the human cogs are more fallible. This dissonance separates the manual from the Machine itself to the extent that Vashti can only trust her book, mirroring the progression humans need to make away from their reliance on technology. Kuno (Karl Queensborough) embraces this, whereas Vashti looks to older technology (literature) for the answers.

Kuno’s monologue about breaking through to the outside world is a game changer in terms of the script. Before, the constant narration means everything has an introductory sheen to it: characters are shown but we never quite see through to their motivations. Suddenly, as Queensborough lies panting on the Earth’s surface, we are brought bursting through to the heart of The Machine Stops: a world full of fear and uncertainty, something which narrators cannot tell us in black and white terms. In shaking off this technique, the world emerges fully formed. The Machine breaks down, the set which was formerly climbed only by the Machine players becomes open for Gruber and Queensborough to navigate. The threat of the Machine stopping is fully realised as a true apocalyptic possibility.

The action builds to create a powerful production, and yet I can’t help but wonder how powerful The Machine Stops would be without its reliance on modern technology. Whilst Forster has wanted to stage the story since 1999, would it have had as much of an eerie relevance to our modern world without the rapid advancement of smartphones or the widespread cult of social media? Would John Foxx and Benge’s beautiful soundtrack be as effective and atmospheric without the sound mixing technology which has placed them at the forefront of modular-based music? If the production were fully against technology, would I have found myself checking my phone as soon as I left the theatre? E.M.Forster’s short story may be a terrifying look into a dependence on technology, but it certainly wouldn’t be the polished and impressive production it is without the involvement of the Machine.

The Machine Stops is on until 4th June 2016. Click here for tickets. 


Review: The Machine Stops at York Theatre Royal Show Info

Directed by Juliet Forster

Written by E. M. Forster, adapted for stage by Neil Duffield

Cast includes Caroline Gruber, Karl Queensborough, Maria Gray, Gareth Aled, Kevin Goodspeed and Edith Kirkwood



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