Edinburgh Fringe 2017
“In this age of uncertainty, where shadows of tyranny, intolerance and war darken human progress, how much time do we have left? If civilisation fell today, what would become of us? In Rebecca Vaughan and Elton Townend Jones’s reinvention of the HG Wells classic, a Victorian explorer travels through time into tomorrow, discovering the fate of our endeavours, uncovering our darkest fears. From the fall of man to the end of the world, this is the story of us all”
The classic science fiction novella by H.G Wells is brought to the Fringe by Dyad Productions. A story of time travel, the tale also allowed Wells to explore via fiction his own concerns for the decline and degeneration of society. Wells was a socialist and had long held worries of the impact of unfettered industrialisation borne on the wings of capitalism. Writer Elton Townend-Jones takes the original novel and imbues it with questions that still concern us today.
A modern, curious, Victorian explorer warps into an historical relic enabling profound realisation that the descent of Mankind towards apocalypse is based on seeds planted into the “Now” of wretched contentment. The future becomes a desolate, wasted opportunity. Visionary fiction such as William Wharton’s Franky Furbo, which painted a future in which mankind had declined into backward sub-servient apes, and self-consciousness had been achieved by waistcoat-wearing foxes was always preceded by this stark, powerful and shocking novella by H.G. Wells. Wells’s portrayal of a diverging development of mankind into a new Eden populated by innocent simpletons and a cannibalistic offshoot that preyed upon the former, has been echoed in visionaries such as Rudolf Steiner who predicted in the first part of the twentieth century that humanity would split also into two – a race of coldly intellectual, spider-like beings plugged into technology, and a race of spiritual, gentler, nature-friendly humans, leading to a war of all against all. Also we have dystopian novels such as Seven Days in New Crete by Robert Graves. All of these literary and esoterically inspired versions of the future were, surely influenced and even inspired by Wells (and perhaps his contemporary Vladimir Soloviev). Dark visions indeeds, but what makes Elton Townend-Jones’s’ theatrical rendition so pertinent and skillful is the simple polemic that the seeds we plant now have their outcome far, far ahead, and in this case, we dissolve into impotence as the natural course of the universe, creates the End Times. No vision here of Michael Moorcock’s Technology-rescued human Dancers at the End of Time for which even the apocalpyse becomes a tool for decadent play. Here the future is a descent, a part-mimic of Hell. Our protagonist comes to full realisation that humanity’s decadent social evolution becomes so akin to Christopher Fry’s Sleep of Prisoners. “So many thousand years to wake… But will you wake, for pity’s sake?”
This is important work on the Fringe, work that needs and deserves to be seen. This is no Victorian relic of literature. This is still relevant visionary fiction. At Brighton Fringe 2017, The Foundry Group brought us the plays of W.S Gilbert (he of Gilbert and Sullivan). Yes, plays, not just light operettas! Gilbert’s plays were extremely well written, often uncomfortable and dealt with issues that are still relevant today and he is probably an unconscious influence on many writers through the 20th and first part of the 21st Century. One of them paints a gritty picture of life on Death Row. Another is incredibly prescient about memory in society and the rise of superficial social media. Wells’s classic novella is treated with tender respect by the writer here but he also adds a modernistic integration without ever doing that for its own sake. What we see of the future is a result of natural evolution but conclusions are also drawn that are extremely relevant to the state of the world today. The steps we take now, the decisions we make (or avoid making) set the path, not only of humanity, but also become a player in the process of evolution itself. This is all done via a piece of direct, solo theatre, rooted in real-time, commentary-based storytelling, delivered with an immediacy, an urgency that goes with that style. It becomes easy to suspend our disbelief and co-experience this emerging tale and its accompanying consequences and realisation.
I’m glad productions like this play at the Fringe. This is an important play, better treated here than in the film versions that tended to focus almost exclusively on the ‘adventure story’ element. Here, via theatre, we have both an engaging story and something deeper and more satisfying as a result.
Like a lot of theatre today still based on scripted narrative, you will need to meet this performance with your attention, contribute your active imagination to help create the world that is not simply offered to you on a plate of spell-it-out writing, special effects and attention-grabbing tricks. If you’re not a fan of science fiction, you need not be put off seeing this. This is a story of consequences – both social and natural. Here we have a theatrical presentation of your future.
This is direct theatre, offered story-style. Yes there are sound effects and some smart lighting choices. Yet mostly it is left to all of us to co-construct an important and dangerous tale. At one level it is sci-fi escapism and at another level it is a strong warning to humanity, suggesting a future that partly lies in our hands.
It is staged with all the hallmark strength of a Dyad show – strong, well-researched writing, fine, acting, and a production that is designed with bare simplicity, yet which always feel more than enough to draw us in and immerse us in the content.
Several things are going to make this production stronger. One is bedding in a fairly demanding, intense and energetic solo performance both in terms of embodying the physicality of the character even further and taking the monologue deeper into gesture and movement. It can feel, in places, a little too shoulder-upwards. As a real time narrated piece we have to imagine the Morlocks and the Eloy through both spoken word and physical reaction. They are brought into believable being by the actor in the space under well-designed lighting and sound effects.
But sometimes the verbal commentary runs more confidently and loudly than the physical movement. An uttered line or word and a physical flinch or an action of fending off danger needs finessing to achieve more consistency across the whole piece.
Equally the art of storytelling is as much about pace and silence as in the delivery of word and sound. You’ll find masterful examples of it at the Fringe at dedicated venues such as the Scottish Storytelling centre. It truly is an art.
Here the high octane, often intense delivery rests too much upon volume and intensity; yet the further use of whisper, silence, the lower and upper register in voice tone will add texture to some of that storytelling-enacted theatre style.
The tension between theatrical form and bare narrative is always going to be a challenge for a director of theatre. It often refines in the repetition of the telling of the tale many times over. Early in the the run it’s very good indeed in this production, accessible and more than able to present the story through action and told narrative. As it is told and the tale repeated – like good wine – it will mature towards something perfect.
It’s all about a very strongly written and delivered show bedding in further and settling into its run here and further journey onwards. That’s always a challenge at the Fringe – to hit the ground running and in this case, perhaps ironically, for the Time Machine to be performed now as if it’s already a performance from its own future. As it is it occasionally felt a little panicky and angsty to deliver itself within the allotted time. Yet there is no reason for an audience to wait to see this version of The Time Machine. It’s already a vital piece of solo theatre at the Fringe, a bold and important rendering of a classic – some of that adaptation being subtle, paying rightful homage to the original “Score” – the novella penned by H.G.Wells. A modern flavour is here and there added in yet rooted in a classic of British visionary fiction with a human-centred explanation of the future.
The time machine itself is cleverly realised (I won’t spoil the simple inventiveness of how it is done), staging and lighting are both economic and more than enough to capture the process of time travel and at the heart of that is a deeper notion that time travel is possible when we can imbue mechanism with transcendent process. We go beyond three dimensions and are immersed into a view of live-able reality that Dante referred to when his Virgil described the afterlife as a region where “time becomes space. It’s a realm in which the physically conscious human can still exist and act. Yet, ultimately do the laws of physical reality still impose an end upon us because we lazily decline and fall victim to its inevitable laws ?
I found all of this thrilling. The show kept my interest and attention throughout and, like all excellent theatre, I felt I had been taken on a journey, and was different at the end of it. I’m left wondering and frowning at our collective future. Which path or paths will we take, and for what end? The Time Machine is intelligent, disruptive and something important to see and reflect upon. It draws upon skilled theatre=craft, powerful storytelling underpinned by excellent acting, all founded upon a textured and finely crafted script. It’s a bold, confident piece of theatre that brings to the stage a novel that I’m delighted has arrived at the Fringe in a refreshed and innovatively adapted form.
Immersive this certainly is, with the fourth wall also shimmering uncertainly as we are told a story in the present tense; we accept an unspoken invitation to dive in, to become witness-collaborators in the greatest unfolding story ever told – the future of us all – a future that emerges in the form of the consequences of our actions today combined with the inevitable destruction of the Earth, predicted by science as the Sun going nova and burning us all up. Do we die too willingly into that future by sowing the seeds in the present ?
The Time Machine as novella by Wells always succeeded in exploring and exposing that scenario. The Time Machine by Townend-Jones carries us along with the time traveller and the journey is a theatrical success.
I throughly recommend this vital piece of theatre. The standing ovation confirmed the tour-de-force quality of the performance.