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The rise of the machines, EM Forster’s technology warning from the past is staged

PUBLISHED: 17:30 13 March 2017 | UPDATED: 17:33 13 March 2017

Maria Gray and Adam Slynn in The Machine Stops, based on the EM Forster novella. Picture: Ben Bentley

Maria Gray and Adam Slynn in The Machine Stops, based on the EM Forster novella. Picture: Ben Bentley

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The Machine Stops, the author’s atypical 100-year-old novella that predicted the internet and our dangerous reliance on technology, has now been turned into a stage production.

Caroline Gruber as Vashti in Pilot Theatre's The Machine Stops, which also includes a soundtrack from Ultravox founder John Foxx. Picture: Ben BentleyCaroline Gruber as Vashti in Pilot Theatre's The Machine Stops, which also includes a soundtrack from Ultravox founder John Foxx. Picture: Ben Bentley

A century ago, EM Forster wrote a prescient dystopian novella that predicted Skype and the internet, and questioned our enslavement to technology.

First published in 1909, The Machine Stops has been republished numerous times, and included in the popular anthology The Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

Set in a post-apocalyptic world where humans live beneath the surface of the earth, this remarkably prescient short story explores the human need for communication, connection and the obstacles that inhibit it — in the shape of technology

York-based Pilot Theatre Company has now turned this story into a 90 minute drama and is bringing it to Bury St Edmunds.

Set in a future where humans have exhausted earth’s resources and are forced to live underground in isolated cells with all their needs met by a machine, director Juliet Forster said she first wanted to stage Forster’s story in the run up to the Millennium.

“I came across it in 1998 just as people were worrying that computers would break down. I thought our dependence on technology was interesting to explore, but back then most people didn’t even have home computers. Now, year on year our world and connection to technology is getting closer and closer to the world in the story.”

This is a very atypical work from EM Forster, an author best known for novels A Room with a View, Howards End and A Passage to India which examine early class in 20th century British society and were favourites of period drama filmmaking team Merchant-Ivory.

Pilot Theatre'sThe Machine Stops, from left-to-right Adam Slynn, Rohan Nedd, Ricky Butt and Maria Gray. Picture: Ben BentleyPilot Theatre'sThe Machine Stops, from left-to-right Adam Slynn, Rohan Nedd, Ricky Butt and Maria Gray. Picture: Ben Bentley

Forster wrote his speculative fiction in response to HG Well’s A Modern Utopia, which optimistically imagined how machines would allow mankind to rise above the toil of hard labour and focus on ideas.

Juliet said: “His was an optimistic view of the advancement of technology, while Forster had a far more pessimistic view of what might happen to us as human beings. What might the future be if we continue in this way and would it be right to hand everything over to a machine?”

It is a story that is astoundingly prophetic. It focuses not just on human’s increasing dependence on technology and the consequences of active counter culture, but also themes of isolation, totalitarianism, the struggle for freedom and loss of identity.

In this subterranean world, each person exists within their own individual cell and humanity is dependent on the Machine, a technological provider of everybody’s perceived needs. Travel is no longer necessary or desired and all contact is made through Skype-like video calls.

In Forster’s production, two performers playing cogs in the machine clamber and leap across a scaffold to service the every need of Vashti, an academic who shares her thoughts to 100 ‘friends’ via videoconferencing.

Meanwhile her renegade son Kuno lives on the other side of the world and rages against humanity’s dependence on the machine, warning her that it faces imminent breakdown.

“Marshall McLuhan, the media professor wrote about how technologies extend the body but at a cost,” says Juliet. “For every amplification there is an amputation that takes away something that was amazing about humanity. As the machine does things for human beings they lose their physical muscular abilities.”

PIlot Theatre's The Machine Stops comes to Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds. Picture: Ben BentleyPIlot Theatre's The Machine Stops comes to Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds. Picture: Ben Bentley

Garnering four and five star reviews the production has already struck a chord with audiences.

“I think everyone has experienced the advancement of technology in their lives. It’s a bit bleak but a very human story about connection and the way we are losing connection and human touch with these virtual relationships. People understand that and react to it. Younger people have never thought about it before because they don’t know any different,” says Juliet.

To adapt the story for the stage Juliet approached experienced playwright Neil Duffield, who has more than 50 stage commissions under his belt.

“I talked to a couple of writers, but I decided to work with Neil, who is a playwright that I have worked a lot with before, and he has done many adaptations of books, and I knew that he would come up with an interesting approach to it and respect Ian Forster’s voice,” explains Juliet.

“The form of the piece was something we jointly found, because over time, although there is only really two characters in the story; Vashti and her son Kuno; the character of the machine, and the dominance of it means that it’s something that needs to be given its own manifestation on stage.

“It was a process of working how we would put all of that together and make it work in the right form, because all the time we are trying to find the form that most suits the content of what you’re telling.”

She believes that their stage production, which features stage designs by Rhys Jarman, brings new insights into this prophetic and poignant tale.

Adam Slynn in The Machine Stops, a story that predicted the internet and our dangerous reliance on technology. Picture: Ben BentleyAdam Slynn in The Machine Stops, a story that predicted the internet and our dangerous reliance on technology. Picture: Ben Bentley

“I think because we are sort of giving a physical manifestation of the machine played by humans, I think you get a much clearer sense of how much of humanity has been lost, I suppose that’s how it works in symbolic terms,” she says. “I think audiences identify quite strongly with the character of Kuno, who is the one who tries to break out of it all.”

The piece features an eerie electronic score by Ultravox founder John Foxx and his collaborator analogue synth specialist Benge with vocals by Gazelle Twin.

“He’s a pioneer of electronic music and has written the most extraordinary score that is filmic, epic and moving. It’s a natural fit for this dystopian story,” says Juliet.

• The Machine Stops, Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, March 14-15, 7.30pm, £16.50-£8.50, 01284 769505, www.theatreroyal.org

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