Theatre review: A Machine They’re Secretly Building

A Machine They're Secretly Building
A Machine They're Secretly Building
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On the way out of this show, performers Rachel Baynton and Gillian Lees hand out programmes to the audience. Actually, they’re more like political leaflets. The credits for the cast and crew of Lincoln’s Proto-type Theatre take second billing to learned quotes from Michel Foucault and Tim Berners-Lee, as well as links to articles and campaign groups.

A Machine They’re Secretly Building ***

Tron Theatre, Glasgow

There’s an irony to think people will go home and key these URLS into their computers. After all, the premise of A Machine They’re Secretly Building is that Big Brother is watching us. The performers contend we are sleepwalking into a surveillance society, one in which CCTV tracks every real-world move while shadowy government agencies monitor every trip across the internet.

The hour-long show takes its title from the statement made by Edward Snowden after he leaked a stash of classified documents belonging to the National Security Agency. Having fled the USA, the whistle-blower said: “I can’t in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.”

If you doubt he said this, you need only check it using your favourite search engine.

Sitting stony-faced at a shared desk, Baynton and Lees take us through the post-war history of global terrorism and the parallel history of intelligence gathering, while an adjacent screen shows a collage of archive footage and statistics. The script, by director Andrew Westerside, is written in an austere poetry of buzzwords and half-sentences, recited with steely efficiency as if to underscore the mechanical chill of information overload.

Behind this barrage of data is a thesis: ever since the Cold War, governments have cultivated a fear of outsiders which they have used as justification to intrude on our private lives. The technological advances of the digital age make it possible to monitor ever more of what we do. As we blithely sign away our rights by agreeing to another set of online terms and conditions, so we take a step closer to subsuming ourselves into the system. Playwright Stef Smith develops a similar idea in her dystopian Girl in the Machine, currently at Edinburgh’s Traverse.

All this is slickly done, but however important the message, it lacks the revelatory power of something we didn’t know already. Instead of being galvanised into action, we leave with only a half resolve to switch to private browsing more often.