The symbolism is hardly subtle; when we enter the Traverse Theatre’s principal performance space, we have to choose which side of a massive shipping container we sit next to. Impressively, this is then pulled to the side to reveal Neil Warmington’s minimalist set and the cast, Michael Dylan and Rosalind Sydney, frozen in an embrace as loving couple Owen and Polly. Our lives, we’re being told, are increasingly compartmentalised, contained and just like everyone else’s.
Girl in the Machine is undoubtedly thought-provoking, emotionally haunting and genuinely revealing.
But this happy contained world, in which the only furniture is four square seats which Dylan and Sydney leap upon and move about to represent different locations, is slowly but surely transforming, just like the Escher-like flooring and the three sophisticated light shades that close up into spheres. And the cause? A new digital “relaxation” device, “Black Box”, which Owen brings home from his work in a care home. He suggests it might help corporate lawyer Polly, ever-conscious of the ping of her work email, to lighten the stress that is clearly affecting her. And it does, noticeably.
But… there is, of course, a “but”. Polly starts using Black Box more frequently, and it proves a slippery spiral down into addiction. Admittedly, we see that there are potential cracks in Polly and Owen’s relationship from the start: for example, she—unlike him—is absolutely fine with the microchips which everyone now must have embedded in their forearms, along with the legal requirement to keep their online records up-to-date. Owen, meantime, obviously feels out of his depth in Polly’s corporate world; he’s a care assistant who prefers dealing with the “body fluids” of sick and dying people.
Staged as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, Stef Smith’s play is text-book science fiction, pushing an aspect of present-day life just that little bit further. She doesn’t give us a precise year, although director Orla O’Loughlin’s decision for Polly to use an iPad suggests it’s not too far ahead. (Strange how Apple’s iconic tablet can already look old-fashioned!) Yet the real concern here isn’t about “big data”, the loss of work-life balance. The big reveal is that Black Box can offer eternal life as a digital upload—an offer millions are willing to accept.
If Smith’s reliance on stuttering, mechanistic dialogue is at times distracting, the “will she, won’t she” nature of Polly’s ultimate choice about the “Bliss” found in uploading herself nevertheless powers the narrative during its latter half, and encourages genuinely strong performances from the cast—including, it has to be said, the chilling tones of the unseen Victoria Liddelle as Black Box itself. Girl in the Machine is undoubtedly thought-provoking, emotionally haunting and genuinely revealing.