A future shock lands at York Theatre Royal

A little-known sci-fi short story by E M Forster is coming to the stage in York. Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad reports.

In several years of asking directors, actors and playwrights about their inspirations, this is the first time I’ve encountered the answer Juliet Forster gives when asked about why she has chosen to direct Pilot’s latest play.

“My husband reads to me at bedtime and one particular night he had a book of British short stories. He read out the first line of each one and as soon as he read The Machine Stops, I wanted to hear more,” says Forster.

If this was one of those clickbait articles written for a website, the headline would surely have read ‘The Cutest Story of Inspiration You’ve Ever Heard’.

Although, in fairness, it probably is.

“He read the first line ‘Imagine, if you can, a room which is hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee.’ It was just so – my imagination caught fire. I didn’t even know it was EM Forster but straight away I was saying ‘that one that one’.” It was E M Forster, he of A Room with A View and Howards End fame, who wrote the dystopian sci-fi short story The Machine Stops.

Over a decade after she first read – or, more accurately, heard, the story, Forster is now bringing it to the stage. Forster is associate director at York Theatre Royal and her production will be the first staged in the studio of the newly refurbished York venue.

Once her husband had read that first line, it was clearly love at first sight for the director – it turns out this project has been a long time coming.

“It settled in my mind. I thought it was an excellent and dramatic story anyway, but in 1998, 1999, it was well before the internet was such a part of our lives and before we all had personal computers in our homes, but it was so prescient. It was the time everyone was thinking about the Millennium Bug and I started to think it would be the perfect story for the time, looking at our reliance on technology.”

The book tells the story of a world where humans have been forced underground and where they rely on a giant machine to provide for all their needs. Astoundingly, it feels prescient even now, given that it predicted technologies such as instant messaging and even describes what is essentially the internet.

Its prescience was just one of the reasons Forster wanted to see it on stage.

“I never got a production off the ground, but it was one of those things that hovered in the background of my mind. Then when I came to York I remember mentioning at the time that I thought it might be a good piece to do for the studio. I began investigating the rights and having conversations but it was just getting pushed back.”

Pushed back, maybe, but never pushed out.

“It has become a more relevant story year on year, the way that technology has grown and all the things that are in different formats, with Skype and Twitter and multi-channel conversations, all these things have become more and more every day for us. The idea that people are glued to their screens and we are becoming more isolated from each other – even in the world of theatre – makes it more relevant, the fact of increasing pollution in the world – in the story people have moved underground to escape pollution – makes it more relevant.

“It just kept becoming more relevant and I kept pulling it out of the desk drawer and thinking that this is the one I really want to do. Eventually it all came together at the right point. The EM Forster estate came back and said that others were interested – which I did know – but they said because I had been so consistently in touch, they asked did I want to do it or not, because now was the time. I said ‘yes, let’s do it, let’s get on with it’.”

Get on with it she has and not only is Forster directing the play, she has tempted John Foxx, best known as a founder of Ultravox and a pioneer of electronic music, to create a soundscape for the production.

“I think it’s a really dramatic story. In my career as a director I have done a number of adaptations and I read all the time but I very rarely come across something that makes me think ‘that would make a great stage play’. So when I do come across something and I do feel it, there’s usually something significant in it,” she says.

“From the description it ought to be essentially unstageable but it is really focussed on this one person’s room, Vashti, the woman who lives in her room on her own, so in terms of the story and initially staging it there is an easy solution – and actually every other room across the entire world is identical so it does work in terms of the simplicity of the staging.”

Clearly a labour of love, a genuinely genre defining artist to work with in John Foxx, an extraordinary story – and perhaps most significantly of all, a first production in a newly refurbished theatre studio. It seems Forster’s journey to stage this play has been worth the wait.

“It is a really exciting time. We do a range of work at York, but I think sometimes you have to push a bit to get the things you really want to do. Sometimes you can rely on being a bit too safe.

“We are heavily reliant on our box office income as a theatre, so we want to do things that we think people will want to see and things that are a bit more experimental, but I think something like The Machine Stops fits really nicely between those two things. So it is quite experimental and it is a fascinating story and a really strong writer.”

The Machine Stops, York Theatre Royal Studio, May 13-June 4. 01904 623568.

Forster agrees that audiences might be surprised to be seeing a sci-fi story from E M Forster. “It’s much closer to the work of H G Wells and writers of that ilk. People are surprised that they have never heard of it, I think that’s really interesting. In the auditions I asked every actor who came in if they knew the story before they had been called to the audition and I saw about 50 actors. There were only two who had. One who was quite young and she had studied it at school and the actor who is playing Vashti had read it at school many years before and it had really changed her relationship to literature.”