Girl In The Machine
Until April 22
Dr Stirlingshire’s Discovery
Reviewed by Mark Brown
There’s an elephant in the room when it comes to public discussion of theatre in Scotland. The unveiling of a new play (Girl In The Machine by Stef Smith) in the main performance space at the Traverse Theatre is as good a time as any to point it out.
New theatre writing is the most essential, and the most difficult, element in any theatre culture; this is particularly true of Scotland, which, thanks to the proscriptions of our Calvinist Reformation, has little by way of a theatre tradition. Now, in the second decade of the new millennium, new theatre writing in Scotland is not good enough often enough. We need to examine our national theatre strategy and the place of the Trav, which self-declares as “Scotland’s new writing theatre”, within it.
I don’t say this because Girl In The Machine (which is directed by the Traverse’s artistic director Orla O’Loughlin) is a bad play; it’s actually a reasonable drama, albeit that it never really threatens to set the heather alight. I say it, rather, because the staging of Smith’s piece reminds one, yet again, that we need a national conversation about the role of the Traverse.
I’ve never enjoyed fence sitting, so allow me to declare my hand. I don’t think there is enough good, new theatre writing in Scotland to justify the Traverse’s dedication to world premieres. In fact, this was true even in the 1990s, the decade of Scottish theatre’s golden generation of playwrights: David Greig, Zinnie Harris, David Harrower and Anthony Neilson.
The Trav would, in my opinion, be better widening its remit to include established modern classics, both Scottish and international; the highly successful staging of Edward Albee’s The Goat, by O’Loughlin’s predecessor Dominic Hill, in 2010 remains a high point in the theatre’s recent history. Rather than simply nurturing writing talent, the Trav’s new writing remit also puts undue pressure on writers, new and established, to come up with the goods.
There is, in my experience, considerable private agreement on these issues within the Scottish theatre community, and yet we plough on, as if the Trav’s self-imposed brief was some kind of sacred cow. The questions I raise here are not only for O’Loughlin and her team at the Traverse, but for the whole of the Scottish theatre community, including funding body Creative Scotland, writers’ development organisation the Playwrights’ Studio and, of course, audiences themselves.
Which brings me back to Girl In The Machine. Although its subject (the fatal digitisation of humanity in a dystopian near future) is ambitious, it feels like a modest studio play which has been given a main stage billing it can’t quite carry off (indeed O’Loughlin has, not for the first time, reconfigured the seating in Traverse 1 to reduce its capacity and increase its intimacy).
The play takes place in an Orwellian society in which people have “citizen chips” embedded in their arms; these personal data banks are regularly updated by the State. Polly (a woman in her thirties who works in the hi-tech industry) receives Black Box, a supposed, computerised relaxation tool, from her husband Owen (who’s a nurse). The machine (a digital headband) updates itself with increasingly sophisticated, and intrusive, software, until, all over the world, it is able to ask its wearers the sinister question: “Do you want to live forever? Yes or no?”
As Black Box works its way into Polly’s psyche, playing on her burgeoning despondency about the future of humanity, the battle between human and machine turns into a popular uprising on the streets.
Powerful though this premise is, and despite strong performances from Rosalind Sydney and Michael Dylan, both play and production underwhelm. Smith’s script does have occasional poetic flourishes, but, for the most part, the dialogue is so prosaic and the future-gazing so predictable that the piece resembles a sci-fi soap opera.
None of this is assisted by O’Loughlin’s directing, which swings irritatingly between a boring physical stasis and pointless running about (inserted, no doubt, by choreographers White and Givan). There is, without question, something genuinely chilling in this play, but, like too much of the Traverse’s output, it fails to fulfil its promise.
Head west from the Traverse to Edinburgh Zoo and you will find another, entirely different piece of new Scottish theatre. Dr Stirlingshire’s Discovery, by Morna Pearson, takes us on a wild goose chase for The Something Or Other, a newly discovered, large mammal which has escaped, leaving only huge dollops of purple poo around the Zoo as evidence of its existence.
Performed in the Zoo after closing time (when, be warned, most of the animals are in their beds), the piece brings together site-specific theatre company Grid Iron and Lung Ha, Scotland’s leading theatre company for people with learning disabilities. The play is a family drama in which the Zoo’s manager Henry Stirlingshire (played with hilarious haughtiness by Antony Strachan) invites his sister, “cryptozoologist” Dr Vivienne Stirlingshire (the unerringly eccentric Nicola Tuxworth), to exhibit her latest finding; he does so in the hope and belief that the unveiling will be a humiliating failure.
As we join the hunt for the missing beast, the Lung Ha chorus offer us an array of humorous characters, from parading penguins to scatter-brained zookeepers. Like a cross between Dr Seuss and Monty Python, the show is great fun, especially for young theatregoers.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on April 9, 2017
© Mark Brown