Immersive theatre often promises more than it can deliver, held back not by the imagination of the production but the temperament of the audience.
The most effective ones – Secret Cinema, Punch Drunk Theatre – tend to be hours long, giving the audience time to let their guard down. The Machine instead attempts to turn the awkward energy into part of the experience, showing that people will do just about anything when they feel vulnerable and someone in authority tells them to.
The production begins in the bowels of the Barbican, where a lady hands you a lab coat and asks for you name.
“How do you spell that?”
She gave me a name-tag that read “John”. Everybody, for the evening, was called either John, Barry or Mark. Then she gave me a swipe card and directed me into the auditorium, which was filled with Rube Goldberg-esque machinery – conveyor-belts and pulleys and sandbags and crank-shafts.
“Swipe in here, please.”
I swiped my card and a little roll of ticker-tape emerged from the wall. “Go to area 21 and fill bags with sand,” it read.
My fellow audience members had all been allocated different tasks, together creating a rudimentary production-line. We were the eponymous machine.
The show oscillates between telling the audience to complete menial tasks, and interludes where the people called Barry – members of the young circus company Collectif and Then… – do handstands and backflips and rope-tricks. Occasionally the two spheres meet; at one point the audience is told to load sandbags onto a pulley, which causes one of the Barrys to be hoisted into the air by her hair.
“Leave her there,” orders an emotionless voice, giving the audience a choice of blind obedience or human empathy.
It’s a neat conceit – repeated in various inventive ways – but it works better in theory than practice. In retrospect it shows how people, when reduced to being simple cogs in a complex machine, can be capable of colluding in evil. But at the time it all feels rather awkward and confused, like you could be a part of something great if only everyone would just lighten up.
First published in City A.M.