Kuno and Vashti

Rohan Nedd as Kuno and Ricky Butt as Vashti. Pictures: Ben Bentley

The Machine Stops

Coventry Belgrade


Science fiction attracted several prominent writers in the early 20th Century. H. G. Wells, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley are among the best known. But what some may not realise (and I was one) was that E. M. Forster was, briefly, in the same bracket.

His 12,000-word short story The Machine Stops, first published in 1909, is cutting stuff: a parody taking stock of the gullibility of the human race, its manipulability, and even the pernicious idolatry that can enter into ordinary everyday life.

All is presented, or perhaps partially cloaked, in the narrative of The Machine Stops. The ‘Machine’ itself is some form of daunting, oppressive, unspecified being, seemingly an automaton, that seeks, in an ‘apocalyptic’ world, to control every aspect of its unfortunate victims’ lives. They are in thrall to it, a bit like humans to Big Brother in Orwell’s 1984, and gradually most become docile, accepting and lose all memory of, and the will to live, a normal life.

The new dominant power – soon to become a worshipped icon – is controlling technology. Everything is laid on, all is predictable, all normal powers of decision are suspended. There is, in short, no freedom. Humanity is put on ice.

In the story, here very competently adapted for the stage by Neil Duffield, the upper world of normality is abandoned. ‘Civilisation’ is what exists in the constricting, grim, heartless and emotionless underworld where those who have been entrapped now live, deep below the surface of the earth. Just one pioneer, like Orwell’s Winston Smith, rebels and kicks against the pricks. He ventures to the surface and briefly, before recapture, sees that life is going on normally, and that true civilisation is both desirable and free of the endless lies and commands peddled below.

Vashti and the acrobats

Adam Slynn (Machine 2) and Maria Gray (Machine 1) hover ominously above the bewitched Vashti (Ricky Butt)

The Machine Stops is one of those plays that places a heavy load upon its actors, mainly because the entire 90 minutes are occupied by just two speakers: a mother who acquiesces and accepts everything infernal; and her son, who doesn’t. Much of the weight early on falls on Ricky Butt (Vashti, the Mother), who has a striking way with words and pacing which rather brilliantly captures the automaton-infected yet recognisable responses of someone who is gripped by the ‘lie’, appallingly devouring ‘The Book’ (rules, ‘things that are forbidden’), sits in a chair she can scarcely rise from (‘There is no point in physical strength: civilisation has advanced far beyond it.’) and pouts out her devotion to the deceptive controlling force. 

But what provides a diversion, or even more an intensifying, of the Machine’s immediacy and power (‘The Machine is omnipotent’) is a pair of eerily hooded grey acrobats (invented by the staging, not Forster: they are titled ‘Machine 1 and 2’, so they’re a key part of the nasty grinding system) – Maria Gray and Adam Slynn. They speak only very occasionally, as kind of commentators/narrators, in a skilful form of choral speaking, verbally paralleling or contrapuntally tripping over one another. But their movements are electrifying. One could have watched them all evening with no words and no play: their snaky, sliding, sidling, interlocking, arching, dangling, tumbling exploits were simply superlative.

And they proved the logic of Rhys Jarman’s solid, metallic, ‘hexagonal’ set: a space that is unbending, restrictive, compacted, grey – a prison in fact. It is so designed, with cross-bars and diagonals, grippable uprights and holes for the acrobats to slither through, that it serves this talented duo perfectly. The range of different sequences they filter through – how do they remember them all? – is quite breathtaking. Add to that a series of sinister electrical wires of rainbow colours, which seem to link up with the numbing mind-control or the evil machinations of the Machine. It’s gripping viewing.

What is not gripping is the music (which was dubbed, I must confess, by the Yorkshire Post on the opening performance ‘A masterstroke.that perfectly adds another layer to a finely-tuned production’.

Well what exactly that other layer is, I’m baffled. Some layer of meaning?  It starts out so well I thought, the music (John Foxx and Benge, or Ben Edwards) is a real plus. But soon it lurches into its main patterns – dominated by a kind of endless series of plodding ostinati. a bit like a pounding Moog synthesiser.

For at least a sixth of the play it occludes – drowns out – what the characters are saying, often at crucial bits. But more importantly, when the gymnastic acrobats are delivering such clever ingenuity and richly varied, shifting invention in their multiple different angular movements, what on earth use is a score that is (mostly) repetitive, plodding, non-atmospheric and frankly irrelevant?

Some blame may attach to the operating technicians, who (perhaps under instructions) allowed the music tediously to overlap too loudly? Couldn’t someone spot the problem? Or else, whose idea was it to use this? (There is one very good moment of clatters, bangs and general collapse which the Sound Engineers got just perfect, and a passage of churchy music that, albeit corny, fitted much better.)

the acrobats

Adam Slynn and Maria Gray as the acrobatic 'Machine 1 and 2' 

No blame on the actors, or the direction (Juliet Forster), which while a bit unadventurous (the Movement Director, if she concocted the superb acrobatics, was Philippa Vafadari) was on a hiding to nothing with a long scene that essentially has the character involved sitting in an armchair. Had the set revolved, maybe some more variety could have been achieved. Visually, without the acrobatics, it would be a bit boring.

But not the main performance. Rohan Nedd plays the boy (or twenty-something) Kuno, Vashti’s son. Both based on the opposite side of this mouldering underworld, he undertakes his upward earth-mission without his mother’s knowledge. Now he wants her to journey to him (in the ugly-sounding, authorised ‘Airship’) to tell her about it. Meanwhile she is terrifyingly spellbound and hypnotised by the infernal mechanical forces (‘I have no interest in stars’; ‘the earth is dust and mud; there’s no life on it’; ‘Your conduct would have been reported to the Central Committee’; and the frighteningly passive, stultifying, stay-at-home ‘Why bring people to things when you can bring things to people?’ With such a background, her encounter with her son is predictably stiff and combative.

Rohan Nedd is a striking and impressive actor, and gives a terrific, electric performance. He speaks with a real passion, and when he embarks on his main soliloquy – a substantial and intense piece of (presumably mostly Forster’s) prose, he passes every test.

It’s all audible, it’s expressive, it’s utterly engaged, it brings changing intonation to different parts, it has a youthful compulsion about it which is absolutely essential to the part. When the Machine begins to implode (sadly we don’t see that), but not before it has engendered a state of blasphemy-like worship among its hooked victims – invalidating the mother’s previous claim, ‘I worship nothing’, he explodes with the line, ‘God didn’t make the Machine. Men made it. And those who created it are all dead.’ That’s one of numerous beautifully crafted passages in Nedd’s fine performance (sadly the Belgrade is the last venue of the current run).

He brings a real pathos to the role – as of someone who has sought the truth but been hitherto obstructed. He wanted ‘to do something that hadn’t been authorised by the Machine’. ‘Man – WE - are the measure.’ His journey has not been wholly unsuccessful, initially you hope that uncorrupted, venturesome, a non-believer, he will repeat it. He has ‘heard birds sing, seen hills’, the dawn, the stars, and seen (improbably) ‘the Wessex that Alfred saw’. It’s a world where ‘they haven’t narrowed down love to a carnal act’. In short, when he ascended to earth’s surface, it was ‘as if arriving in heaven’.

But in fact, what awaits them is death, together. It is for the world above to continue to forge civilisation. This was a stylish show by Pilot Theatre and York Theatre Royal, visually absorbing, and a very decent attempt to transfer E. M. Forster to the stage, as opposed to celluloid. To 08-04-17

Roderic Dunnett


Index page Belgrade Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre