At the end of A Machine They’re Secretly Building, a quip is made about some members of the audience having half a mind to throw away their mobile phones. While it’s unlikely anyone will actually toss their expensive gadgetry into a Summerhall bin post-show, Proto-type Theater’s A Machine They’re Secretly Building does prompt us all to think seriously about the data we transmit and how it is stored.
Sitting side by side at a desk, performers Rachel Baynton and Gillian Lees tell us, in turn, and in a steady tone, that the justification for enhanced online surveillance is, quite simply, “our own safety”. They explain how certain factors – like war and terrorism – have resulted in freedoms being restricted in the name of security. The women onstage don’t believe that freedom should be sacrificed in this manner, though. The words “I’ve got a massive whistle and I’m gonna blow it” are spoken fairly early on, and they perfectly encapsulate the intention of this show: to shed light on the extent to which people are monitored in the twenty-first century.
Baynton and Lees’ consistently matter-of-fact tone is rather unsettling, and it’s effectively reflects the fact that surveillance has become a normal part of daily life. They make everyone in the room confront the reality of their digital footprint in one monotone utterance: “your lives, harvested like grain”. Like the level voices Baynton and Lees use, the staging of this show is strategic. There’s nothing remarkable or theatrical about it, and that’s the point – the starkness of the set-up adds to the starkness of the message. There’s no splendour clouding what is being conveyed.
With A Machine They’re Secretly Building, Andrew Westerside hasn’t penned a groundbreaking script. This type of chilling, surveillance-centric content has been delivered to us all before – by Orwell, by Atwood, by any writer of dystopian fiction. But the performers’ calm demeanour, the use of factual statistical information and the eerie music that rises in the background makes for an informative, powerful, and uncomfortable hour that’ll stick in the mind.
Words: Morgan Laing
Photo: Proto-type and Fenia Kotsopoulou
A Machine They’re Secretly Building, Summerhall, Aug 26-27, 2.40pm