The Parade Ground yard outside the Roundhouse Theatre was buzzing last night with indie patrons there to see not one, not two, but three shows on the La Boite indie calendar: 4000 Miles, Mullah Nasrudin, and Machina, an eagerly-awaited, new work from Richard Jordan, directed by Catarina Hebbard, and which is now playing in the Loft – a space I hadn’t visited before.
The lead up to production – itself subsidised by a ‘long-tail’, online crowd sourced campaign – added clever marketing videos and a website (designed by Nathan Sibthorpe) which teased us with hints of dastardly doings by the evil, faceless ‘Machina,’ and of individuals who have decided to ‘go inside’ the machine and live as disembodied selves in perpetuity. The regularly posted bulletins hinted at evil corporate scheming and fear of their machinations (pun or otherwise intended) and, of course, society’s obsession with online connectivity. Add the age-old fascination with the idea if not the reality of immortality for a price (Faustus) – and you get a rich and powerful mix that intrigued.
With the work which has emerged – playing at approximately 100 minutes (feature-film length) and no interval – I can’t help feeling there are two plays competing for attention in Mr Jordan’s fascinating narrative-line or, at least, a longer play that awaits development. Machina in its present form falls between several stools. The plot structure is fragmented – perhaps deliberately – Mr Jordan writes in the programme Playwright’s Note of wanting the audience to have the ’10 tabs open’ fragmented online experience as they watch the play. It’s a clever notion although I found it difficult and not a little tiring – just like real-time multitasking – to keep switching and to focus on the message – do we need a message – well at least the driving beat or main tab’s content in focus.
Machina‘s online marketing campaign hinted at its being a creepy, futuristic sic-fi piece blended with critique of faceless powerful ‘beings.’ Machina (pronounced MAK-ina from deus ex machine – the god via the machine) has ideas far above its station – encompassing the literal absorption of sentient beings into the cloud of its workings. This is hinted at, but is background rather than focus – indeed the drama of Machina focusses on a touching domestic drama – the mystery surrounding the disappearance and presumed death of a character who never appears – David Sergeant – and the frantic search by his mother isobel (Kaye Stevenson), and the estrangement between Isobel and her daughter and David’s sibling (Luisa Prosser). Then there is the largely comic relationship between Tom (Liam Nunan) and his online stalker Scott (Jack Kelly) two young men who meet via Machina and eventually date in the real world. With the exception of Ms Stevenson, the excellent ensemble of cast members all double roles with Judy Hainsworth and Peter Rasmussen also appearing as characters in a world dominated by technology – Mr Rasmussen as an online devotee “I’m here for the sex,” but who becomes a chat partner on Machina with Isobel, and also appears as the spirit of her dead husband, Ms Hainsworth doubles as Lesley’s needy ‘friend’ and a ditsy computing student. There are also a couple of broadly-played farcical interludes that swipe at the general public’s computer literacy.
The Machina digital platform is god-like in its power and influence – I was reminded of Orwell’s Big Brother (1984) – and its willing acolytes worship at tiny ‘shrines’ aka mobile phones and laptops, the glow on their faces revealing their fascination and total absorption. There is one mercifully- brief moment where the actors circle the stage chanting in a mock-Gregorian way for the spirt of Machina to possess them. No need, I thought; look around in any coffee-shop, waiting room or in public transport these days and you’ll see the power of the machine – godlike or otherwise – at work.
By play’s end with ‘David’s’ presence having been discovered finally by Isobel – yes, he has gone inside – at least that is the impression I gained as the stage is bathed with an other-worldly brilliant white light – we hear the agonised cry for recognition by her living and present daughter. Isobel ‘looks up’ and embraces her. Connectivity has happened.
Cat Hebbard directs the intersecting plot lines seamlessly and with flair, and the cavernous Loft space is beautifully transformed into a workable, flexible and pristine, white world by Andrew Haden (set and lighting) and Susan Marquet (costume). Machina’s soundscape design from Composer and Sound Designer Phillip Hagstrom is both soothing and grating (deliberately) by turn. The insistent and increasingly loud ‘scratch’ of needle on vinyl that compartmentalises the play’s narrative frames really upset this survivor from an analog world!
Machina’s message is timely if not particularly new in the sense that there have always been calls to ‘beware’ in eras that have enjoyed scientific and technological innovation. The fear that we will lose our humanity to the machine or to the ‘forces of science,’ have been loud, ignorant, often violent, but insistent. Machina‘s cry to beware the faceless ones, to look up and out, and to embrace the material world and the present with all its flaws is worth repeating.
Machina is playing in The Loft at the Creative Industries Precinct, Kelvin Grove. See La Boite’s website for performance dates and times.