THIS IS NOT A SPOILER FREE REVIEW
‘Do you want to live forever?’ asks Stef Smith’s muddled dip into present-day anxieties, and I’d have to respond with a resounding ‘not really’. However, Smith’s script, which could easily pass for a lost Black Mirror episode, does not offer the audience much of a choice. Choosing to ‘live forever’ sees people lose their minds to a great, technological unknown, and choosing to face the real world also suggests certain death at the hands of angry rioters and societal implosion. Unfortunately, however, we don’t really know why either of those things is happening.
Girl in the Machine is a bleak assessment of our relationship with technology, a hot topic in this digital age of fake news, Facebook algorithms, and constant streams of adverts flooding our screens. However, Smith’s vision of a dystopian world, in which humanity’s only guiding lights are the LEDs on a sinister new ‘relaxation’ headset, is somewhat detached from the human side of things. The promise and potential are there, however, like a latest iPhone update, although the story appears enticing on the cover, when dissected it becomes a superficial discussion that fails to stand upright in the vacuum of the writing.
The eponymous ‘Girl’ in this suspicious ‘Machine’ is Polly, played by the extremely talented Rosalind Sydney. Polly is an extroverted, career-motivated 30-something who loves her job and, apparently, her husband Owen (Michael Dylan). Sydney captures the fragility of her character, as well as the restlessness that consumes her as the story progresses. Rolling, writhing, and running back and forth across the world that is her apartment, Sydney shivers with unexpressed and unfulfilled need, flitting between the clinical and hopeless real world and a warmer and more welcoming virtual one.
Owen is a direct contrast to Polly. A commanding and noticeably sturdy presence on stage, slouched and stubborn, he is a nurse deeply rooted in ‘the real world’. He revels in a job that emphasises the physical, and he enjoys being part of gruelling realism. Owen becomes an observer who worries about technological progress jeopardising his position, while rolling his eyes at every email alert Polly receives from her firm. While his concerns are not unfounded, shouldn’t this man also have a pager constantly going off?
Throughout, the characterisation of both Polly and Owen, as well as their relationship, lacks development and depth, making what could have been a truly tragic story less effective as they fail to seem like a successful couple at the start. The play’s pamphlet tells us that Polly and Owen are ‘wildly in love’, however they border on dangerous co-dependency. The tensions between them in the beginning only arise from the fact that Polly’s job requires her to have an iPad, which seems like a weak attempt to introduce the theme of the dangers of technology, but takes depth and context away from the characters. How the two of them met or how long they have been together remains unknown, and reduces the characters to mere archetypes for the plot to be reflected against, rather than becoming fully fledged, unique individuals who are defined by something other than their relationship to the immediate events of the play. We were left wondering who these people are and why they are married; from the offset Owen frequently passes judgement on Polly’s deteriorating condition, recognising that she is becoming an addict because he has worked with them in the past, but refuses to help her, or even attempt to understand her. This not only contradicts his own professional experiences, but also emphasises the lack of harmony in his supposedly perfect marriage. Polly constantly pulls Owen in only to shove him violently away again. Their relationship rollercoasters from blissful adoration, to selfishness and anguish, out of nowhere. It is evident that we are meant to care about these characters, however the show appears to push us towards blaming the Machine, which is merely a scapegoat for the other difficulties the pair of them are facing.
The biggest mystery is undoubtedly the eerie ‘Black Box’ which Owen brings home from the hospital one day. He claims it is being used to treat patients with anxiety as it enforces a state of numbing relaxation which Polly comes to call ‘bliss’. Immediately untrustworthy (parallels between this device’s name and the purpose of real life black boxes suggest nothing good can come from it), the seductive, sleek tech boasts the ability to give users visions and while away hours, while lost in a murky soundscape. However, humanity’s own curiosity and drive proves fatal, as ‘Black Box’ begins to tear down the world around it. While an interesting concept, how the Box actually works becomes the problem not only for the characters, but also for the audience. It seems inconsistent and implausible; who manufactured it and who it was bought from is also never disclosed and proves to be the main reason why everyone falls prey to it – are we meant to believe that this piece of technology was accepted by hospitals without trial, without knowing where it even came from, and immediately used on patients? Furthermore, the device is somehow able to recognise Polly when she does not have her ‘Citizen-Chip’ in her, despite previously saying that there was an error in scanning the existing Chip, as well as expressing reliance on the Chip to identify a person. ‘Black Box’ as a stylistic device is interesting in theory, and has a lot of potential, however its ineffability, while potentially purposeful, just made us scratch our heads in disbelief and frustration.
Neil Warmington’s design was a geometric kaleidoscope of intrigue and voyeurism, shoving aside an imposing transit container to reveal the stark apartment of Polly and Owen and invite the audience a glimpse into an unsavoury future, and was the gem of the show. Inhabited by two great and compelling actors who portrayed the difficulties of a destructive relationship and the helplessness of both an observer and a suffering addict, the performance was intriguing and strong. However, the ambiguity of Girl in the Machine seemed to verge on the unnecessary, both failing to elaborate on plot points and cramming them in until there was no room for context to the random and horrifying events of the narrative. The play was presented as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, however lacked in the necessary logic and data for a deeper scientific discussion, leaving us asking ‘why?’ for all the wrong reasons.
Girl in the Machine is on at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until April 22nd.
Reviewed by Zoe Robertson and Lucie Vovk