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Thursday, 26 May 2016

Theatre Review: A Machine They're Secretly Building

Proto-type Theatre’s production performed at the Lincoln Performing Arts Centre

eamlessly melding performance with lecture, Prototype Theatre’s production, A Machine They’re Secretly Building, lifts the lid on the horrors of government surveillance. The play derives its title from Edward Snowden’s claim that the US government is taking away the public’s basic liberties with a “massive surveillance machine they're secretly building."

There are some big issues dealt with here, but Andrew Westerside’s script manages to strike a balance between the informative and the entertaining – presenting innumerable shocking facts to great effect and with a healthy dose of dry humour, all packed into its snappy, one-hour duration. The academic tone of the piece is hardly surprising, considering Westerside is a drama lecturer at Lincoln University. He is part director, part academic, and this show makes use of both his theatre experience, and his PhD.

As we take our seats, two women sinisterly watch us through pink balaclavas –  the allusion to Pussy Riot can’t be coincidental – and the uncluttered stage consists only of a desk, projector screen, filing cabinet and a camera on a tripod. The play begins and the masked figures begin to reel off the facts, beginning our journey through the history of government surveillance from the Second World War to present day. When they take off the headgear, their continuously deadpan recital allows the pair to successfully provide much needed funny moments, giving us respite between their bleak messages.

Although in many senses this is a very simplistic production – basic lighting cues, minimalist staging and statically blocked scenes – props are used to great effect. A helium balloon, tin foil hats and cling film all provide sometimes humorous visual aids to get the messages across.

A live feed from the camera is projected onto the screen, which focuses our attention on the performers, and also accentuates the play’s voyeuristic theme. The camera is pointed out into the audience and a red box scans their faces, replicating counter-terrorism technology used to spot suspicious behaviour. Coupled with the topics discussed, this simple device is able to create a palpable sense of unease in the crowd. They squirm nervously as the point is hammered home, realising they are all the victims of untoward government snooping.

While the detail and research that went into constructing Westerside’s script is impressive, more questions are raised than answered. However, this was clearly the intention of the piece. It leaves us empowered, wanting to do something about the injustices it discusses, and hungry to find out more. Leaflets are even handed out as we leave, giving us more information and online links.  Naturally, this is as much a protest piece as a stage show, it’s aim is to raise awareness and educate. Touching upon subjects like the United States National Security Agency and the size of a yottabyte without boring us is an ambitious aim – yet they hit the mark and hold our interest throughout.

Through an expertly-researched script and shrewd delivery, A Machine They’re Secretly Building gives a solid attempt to galvanise us into action. It is a compact, harsh assault on our conscience, wrapped in an accessible, attention grabbing package. The play is able to deliver its message loud and clear.

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