Review: The Machine Stops

By Tom Barry

A chilling portent of a potential future, this physically impressive new play guides the audience’s imagination through a world in which that very sense has become obsolete.

The inhabitants of the titular Machine are so far removed from the natural world and first-hand experience that they have lost themselves and their humanity to technology: to the oppression of reason. The play, adapted from the book by E.M. Forster, takes place in a barren dystopian future where in the absence of a vibrant surface, people have retreated underground, and from each other. Juliet Forster’s take on the novel realises this failed utopia with terrifying prescience, emphasising narrative details which have since been proved right: the existence of social media, instant communication, and the internet as an echo chamber. The Machine, both sinuous and sinister, is depicted with admirable acrobatic control by two actors (Maria Gray and Gareth Aled) who fulfil the narrational component of the world’s exposition.

The Machine Stops excels in establishing an exaggerated version of the society we inhabit, then disturbing both it and us at once by allusion to the depths to which humanity has sunk; tolerance, difference, and curiosity are all liable to incur the death penalty, referred to as ‘homelessness’, as pariahs are ejected from the Machine upon which they’ve become so pathetically reliant and so are left to die in the natural, ‘unmechanical’ world. In fact, no one except the hero Kuno (Karl Queensborough) seems to seek any reason to live; life and its attendant strains are treated as an inconvenience, procreation as a chore, and (in an appalling inversion of the Spartan custom) newborns deemed to pose a threat to the Machine by exhibiting any strength are routinely euthanised. The text grapples with almost too many cultural strands in its little-over-an hour runtime, questioning the value of religion, education and science to name a few as worthwhile pursuits in themselves if the foundations of our being, our minds and bodies, are rotten.

Life and its attendant strains are treated as an inconvenience, procreation as a chore.

The most interesting, and the only relationship we physically see, is that of Vashti (Caroline Gruber) and Kuno, her son. The usual generational gap is reversed, as Vashti is totally in thrall to the Machine whereas her youthful firstborn is intent on rejecting the boundaries and distractions set in place by technology. These barriers are embodied onstage by the striking set, a continuous steel climbing-frame which the actors clamber over and around constantly, in every way conceivable.

The play’s atmosphere is slyly achieved, with an original soundtrack by John Foxx and Benge accompanied by the lighting design (Tom Smith) always nudging the mind into the correct space and time for the character’s to believably inhabit a world we cannot see. The Machine Stops is a tale which seems to only become more relevant as the inexorable march of progress marches on, and the play asks whether or not we should slow down else we risk being consumed by it.

The Machine is the final expression of efficiency, a system which brings everything to you. But the result is not prosperity, but lethargy, callousness and fear. For anyone unfamiliar with the novel, this adaptation will surely shake assumptions you didn’t know you’d made about why we live as we do.

The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster, adapted by Neil Duffield, directed by Juliet Forster. Performing at York Theatre Royal until the 4th of June, 7:45pm every evening with two matinees a week.

Photos courtesy of Ben Bentley.