Jonathan Holloway’s The Time Machine

With H.G. Wells’s classic and hugely influential work The Time Machine celebrating its 125th anniversary, Creation Theatre has teamed up with Jonathan Holloway, The London Library, and a host of consultant scientists and experts from The Wellcome Trust, to create an immersive theatrical experience inspired by Wells’s work. The Time Machine is on Wednesday through Sunday till the 5th of April at The London Library, with a future run taking place in Oxford. We asked playwright Jonathan Holloway to reflect on his process for Vector. Here’s what he had to say … 

Jonathan Holloway in The London Library.jpg
Jonathan Holloway

Creation’s production of THE TIME MACHINE at the London Library is billed as an ‘adaptation’. That’s not really quite what it is. When I was asked to do it, I hadn’t re-read the book for more than forty years, and on doing so, my heart sank.  There isn’t really enough story to allow for an ‘adaptation’ as such. To make something that was going to be worthwhile, the task needed a different approach. The original is basically a yarn about a man who builds a time machine in his conservatory, travels forwards in time, finds the human race has evolved into two halves, one of which lives underground and eats those who live on the surface, then travels back to the present appalled by what he found. The theatre can’t do what a movie can – it doesn’t present ‘actuality’, instead it’s about a collusive relationship with the audience which forefronts ideas. We don’t necessarily ‘show’ it, we describe it, and you create the pictures in your head.  

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On the set of The Time Machine (Photo by Richard Budd)

Creation Theatre Company put me in touch with the Wellcome Centre in Oxford and I visited on several occasions, meeting scientists, philosophers and ethicists, and hearing what they had to say about the future – over roughly the next fifty years. So, inspired – as it were – by H.G. Wells’ THE TIME MACHINE, I penned a journey through the labyrinth of the iconic London Library, where the author was a member, and imagined a future in which time travel has generated thousands of parallel universes.  Effectively, I rather unceremoniously pulled apart this classic sci-fi novel, re-invented it, and pieced it back together to create a world in which the present is endlessly shifting, and the future is strange and uncertain. Travellers have tinkered with timelines causing people’s names, faces and indeed the colour of their socks to change without warning.  It is a very ‘theatrical’ evening which requires that we suspend our disbelief and enter into the fanciful creation of an alien dramatic world. Humour sits alongside appalling predictions. It’s a hybrid kind-of show wherein dramatic situations surrender ground to an event that alternates between being a play and something approximating to a TED talk. The script was pretty much done by the end of October, but alarmingly some of the material that seemed farfetched back then concerning climate change and the possible threat of pandemics has subsequently appeared on our TV’s in the form of Australian wild-fires and the spread of Coronavirus. Wells has offered myself and Creation an opportunity to work the fantasy of time travel into a theatrical event that now sometimes feels more like a documentary.

The audience are divided into groups, each of which is accompanied by a time travelling guide.  This character bears more than a passing resemblance to Wells’ protagonist – The Time Traveller –  and s/he leads our groups through the wonderfully atmospheric interior of the London Library, where they meet other characters, see projected images and listen to recorded speech as if it’s leaking from the many thousands of books on the shelves. The logistics of a show like this are themselves mind-bending. Each group will see the same show, but staggered, as they process in series from room to room. Each group must be kept separate from the others. It’s a theatrical Rubric’s Cube which, thank Heavens, is organised by a wonderful director called Natasha Rickman.

Wells’ THE TIME MACHINE remains one of the great science fiction novels of all time. In this production we have to demonstrate how important a thinker like Wells is to the fabric of how we see ourselves, the purpose we find in existence and what we bequeath to our children. So, I’d ask you please to leave your preconceptions at the door. Yes, you will receive something of Well’s brown furniture and tobacco-soaked club-land atmospherics … but more importantly, we hope you may feel a connection being made between the socialist author and today’s activists.

Personally I can’t believe my luck as I add THE TIME MACHINE to a list of adaptations of great science fiction I have done for the theatre and the BBC including Alfred Bester’s TIGER TIGER, Philip K. Dick’s DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP, Waugh’s BRAVE NEW WORLD and Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR.

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