Delving once again into online performance, Big Telly Theatre tackle the dark themes of E.M. Forster’s prescient short story, The Machine Stops. With the earth’s surface out of bounds, citizens now live below the surface, rarely travelling and staying in touch via video conferencing. Taking the flexibility of Zoom backgrounds up another level the company incorporate movement, costumes and innovative props into moulding a steampunk aesthetic.
Leading us gentle inhabitants into a peculiar mix of past and future is an uneasy Operator. Nicky Harley smartly integrates random moments of audience interaction and participation as her character learns to be a disruptive force. At the heart of the story are a mother and son, separated by physical distance and their different responses to an omnipotent machine. Vashti opens our primary window into this bleak world, Anna Healy imbues her with a relatable heavy heart and sombre submission. Gary Crossan sparks off the melancholy with some thoughtful revolutionary zeal as her son Kuno.
Using modern reference points such as muting and telephone menus in conjunction with an old fashioned look that includes elaborate gas masks and a didgeridoo adds to the air of weirdness. There are unpleasant discussions on reproductive rights and euthanasia; it’s an earth as we might know it in a slightly darker timeline. The nasty atmosphere is amplified by an aggressively imperious Central Committee played by Rosie McClelland, Emily Lamey, Jonny Cameron, Niamh McEnhill and Christina Nelson. Fortunately their technology is susceptible to the power of attack from surprisingly basic materials.
Going down the rabbit hole we encounter clever magic tricks and bizarre recorder playing, while utilising video means the action can move outside. David Morgan has created some magic special effects and director Zoe Seaton crafts them into a relevant and moving online adventure. Confronting big ideas in a dystopian vision, this is a performance to get people thinking about how society functions.