Interview: The Machine Stops

“You talk as if a god had made the Machine,” cried the other. “I believe that you pray to it when you are unhappy. Men made it, do not forget that.”

By Tom Barry

Technology, and the environmental cost it inflicts, has become the defining driver in our society of new ways of thinking and living. Long before the invention of the internet and the advent of climate change, E.M. Forster explored the potential nightmare that our reliance on technology poses in his short story The Machine Stops. This month, York Theatre Royal and Pilot Theatre present a theatrical adaptation of that tale, at a time when our capacity to communicate has never been greater, yet our interactions more distant.

Speaking to the director Juliet Forster (of no relation) about the creation of a new play, especially one as vivid and otherworldly as this, she emphasises that theatre direction is above all a collaborative process; a director’s skill lies in their ability to bring the imaginations of the writers and cast together in such a way as to produce a truly original, insightful piece. In this case, the primary challenge posed by The Machine Stops is the construction of a plausible, visual world. In the book, humanity has retreated from the surface of the Earth into vast subterranean cities to escape the pollution above. It is in this context, where every need for sustenance in both mind and body is provided for by automation, by “the Machine”, that the young protagonist dares to wonder what else may be, what else there might have been. When asked to describe the style of the play, Juliet explains that the text is far less prescriptive than several of her previous projects, due to its futuristic setting; though far from naturalistic, the characters exist in a state of heightened reality. The play and its characters are pervaded by a frenetic urgency, which Forster seeks to foster as much as possible; part of what makes every play so exciting and unique is working with diverse, disparate voices to create a single, unified spectacle.

The Machine Stops is not so much a work of science-fiction, but rather of speculative fiction. It seeks to ask questions about the world and our place in it. Neil Duffield, the playwright who has adapted the book, calls it “prophetic” and “extraordinarily insightful”; it foretells the coming of the internet and social media, and the impact they have had upon our philosophies and culture. Unlike some other adaptions he’s undertaken, he informs me that this required very little actual ‘adaption’ in order to make it fit for the stage. The hardest part was building the world Forster described in such detail: not just physically, as relationships in cyberspace don’t translate well to literal reality. When asked what his intentions and hopes for the play are, Duffield stresses that he would rather ask questions than seek to provide answers, and that while some artistic licence has been taken when necessary, he has endeavoured to remain faithful to the spirit of the novel: anyone leaving the theatre inspired to read it would be the ideal reaction. He emphasises that young writers must persevere, and keep in mind that in order to make people think deeply, they must first be moved by what they experience.

“anyone leaving the theatre inspired to read [the novel] would be the ideal reaction”

One thing both director and playwright agree on is that theatre cannot be defined as strictly an exercise in representation, holding up a mirror to the wider culture; nor purely as an act of self-expression, where it is the artist (or rather, all those who have contributed something to the production, including E.M. Forster himself) whose intention is paramount.

Any play is a collective effort, deliberately transitory, making it perfect for commentary on the present day. This story in particular has never been more prescient: it asks the question ‘how could we get to the point where we hand over our freedom, our humanity, to a machine?’, in an era where technology has made isolation all the more painful for its infrequency. Juliet wonders why we never collectively discuss whether technology is good for us; the march of progress simply soldiers on. She calls it “the most interesting, most challenging show she’s done in York”.

Her advice to young aspiring directors? Don’t wait for someone to give you a job – make your own work and climb the ladder, learning all the time. A great show was never great because it has money: necessity is the mother of invention. Lastly, see as much professional theatre as possible, to see what works and what doesn’t and know what it is you want to create: finding your voice means listening to others.

The Machine Stops, adapted by Neil Duffield from the novel by E.M. Forster, directed by Juliet Forster. Performing at York Theatre Royal in association with Pilot Theatre from Friday 13th of May to Saturday 4th of June, at 7:45pm with matinees at 2pm on Thursdays and 2:30pm on Saturdays.

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