Reviewed by Jo Lindsay Walton
Time travel plus pandemic: the elevator pitch might simply be, “Dr WHO.”
Written by Jonathan Holloway and directed by Natasha Rickman, The Time Machine is a free and freewheeling response to H.G. Wells’s classic text, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year.
Like previous work by Creation Theatre, The Time Machine is an immersive, site-specific production. You prowl around the London Library in a little gaggle, led by your Time Traveller guide, occasionally chased by a spooky Morlock, and now and then bumping into other characters.
The mildly transgressive feeling of snooping around after hours, seeing the Library in a strange light — often, like, literally lit up in strange lights — is one of the pleasures of the production. Perhaps my favourite scene placed the Time Traveller on the level below us, visible through slats, muttering and pacing and mucking about with a tape recorder while we (were we supposed to?!) noodled freely among the shelves. There’s a reason for this venue: H.G. Wells joined the Library in 1896, just after publishing The Time Machine, and was a member for many decades. It was the context in which Wells would have met people such as Thomas Hardy and Maxim Gorky.1
However, from its opening moments, it’s clear this new Time Machine will radically rewire its source material. It immediately dispenses Wells’s dichotomy of the elfin Eloi and the trogoldytic Morlocks. Instead, we’re told of a new kind of Morlock, these ones more like time ghosts: wispy, pitiable predators, somehow symptomatic of the general fraying of the fabric of reality. If anything, they resemble a version of Wells’s Time Traveller himself:
So long as I travelled at a high velocity through time […] I was, so to speak, attenuated—was slipping like a vapour through the interstices of intervening substances!
A plot emerges: humanity is headed for an apocalypse, so the Time Traveller is fast-forwarding to the future to find out all they can, and then rewinding to warn everybody. Also, time travel is illegal. That’s why we’re there: the Time Traveller wants witnesses, to vouch for these noble intentions at the inevitable trial.
It is, very sensibly, a fairly straightforward plot. It allows Holloway, Rickman and Creation Theatre to really go to town on digressions, embellishments, paradoxes and provocations, and general cosmic silliness, without the audience getting totally confused and fed up.
The result is a rambunctious and zany ride, with shades of Dirk Gently, Red Dwarf, the more speculative end of BBC radio comedy, and the more psychedelic reaches of Dr Who. Although there is discernible concern for structure, pacing, foreshadowing, set-ups and pay-offs, etc., the final effect is like a big crate of fireworks that has accidentally caught fire, rather than a carefully programmed display. And when the smoke clears, you think: Sure. Why not do it like that?
Especially if time is short. The causes of the apocalypse, as I understood them, are: climate change, pandemic (cough), technology run awry (especially synthetic biology), and socio-economic inequality. As the play makes clear, these are deeply interconnected trends: less Four Horsemen, more a monstrous many-limbed Centauripede of the Apocalypse. Time travel itself comes to stand for all the unforeseen side effects of hubristic techno-fixes still TBD.
When Wells’s Time Traveller introduces his machine, Wells uses deft misdirection to make the reader feel like they getting the explanation they deserve. First he spills a lot of ink convincing you that time is a dimension, then he focuses fastiduously on the metallurgical composition and mechanical operation of the machine (initially a scale model): here is the saddle where you sit, this lever goes forward, this one goes back, etc. Holloway uses similar tricks. ‘How does it work?’ inquires Scientist (Sarah Edwardson), and receives a tutorial aimed at users rather than engineers. You write the target date here, you clutch it to your chest, and you say ZOOM!
If the recent anthology The New Voices of Science Fiction (2019) is anything to judge by, time travel is once more having a bit of a moment. But broadly speaking, the time travel in Rajaniemi and Weisman’s anthology tends to reflect new internet-era temporalities: the rapid pace at which identities and intimate communities can form and iterate, the way Facebook can confront you with the person you once were, etc. By contrast, the time travel of The Time Machine — whilst playing pretty fast and loose with its source — still feels essentially Wellsian. It fancies its chances with the large-scale stuff. It sees itself as an instrument of futurology, sweeping up diverse styles of expertise into a digestible narrative, hoping to inform public discourse about the future history of humanity. It is perhaps even concerned with a word many SF writers nowadays tend to reject — prediction.
Of course, we’re not just to take Holloway’s word for it. The grim future glimpsed here is a workshopped apocalypse, arising from consultation with a range of relevant experts. After the play, they materialise on computer screens, talking about their research. I regret not lingering to learn more (I spotted an earlier version of myself, and we were trying that scam where you give the earlier version your ticket so they don’t have to buy one, and it has no origin, then Time Cops got us, so) but I do know they included scientists, philosophers and applied ethicists working with the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities. I’m curious to know how consistent a picture they painted.
One reason for using theatre in this way might be to streamline, popularise, and amplify the underlying academic research. But another reason (maybe a better one?) might be to identify disagreements, tensions and uncertainties, and — instead of smoothing them away — to transform them into more fruitful forms of ambiguity.
For example, borders. On the one hand, when the Time Traveller describes national borders disintegrating, the image is intended as a fearful one. Famine, wild-fires and rising sea levels render former population centres uninhabitable, and the notion of the nation state falls apart amid pandemonium and bloodshed. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the play likes these borders it laments. Indeed, the only specific national border that gets mentioned is the one around (New?) New Zealand — the haven where the ultra-rich will retire behind a heavy naval blockade, hoping to forget about the world they have set on fire. This last repulsive rump of the Westphalian state system is the apotheosis of its moral bankruptcy, “a sort of megatherium of the same form and anatomy as its predecessors,” as Wells might have put it.
For what it’s worth, Wells himself was no fan of national borders. They come up in a roundabout way in his Time Machine, where Wells tries to reveal the horror of class divisions by estranging those divisions as political and biological boundaries:
[…] the gradual widening of the present merely temporary and social difference between the Capitalist and the Labourer, was the key to the whole position. […]
There is a tendency to utilize underground space for the less ornamental purposes of civilization […]
Evidently, I thought, this tendency had increased till Industry had gradually lost its birthright in the sky. I mean that it had gone deeper and deeper into larger and ever larger underground factories, spending a still-increasing amount of its time therein, till, in the end—! Even now, does not an East-end worker live in such artificial conditions as practically to be cut off from the natural surface of the earth? […]
Again, the exclusive tendency of richer people—due, no doubt, to the increasing refinement of their education, and the widening gulf between them and the rude violence of the poor— is already leading to the closing, in their interest, of considerable portions of the surface of the land.
If not nations, then what? Wells tended to argue for a unified world commonwealth to replace the current international system. Wells’s world state, especially as expressed in his later writing, has been criticised as undemocratic. That’s probably fair enough, though it’s worth remembering that Wells’s enthusiasm for technocracy had a lot to do with his sense of the undemocratic nature of actually existing democratic institutions. “The present rudimentary development of collective psychology obliges us to be vague and provisional about the way in which the collective mind may best define its will for the purpose of administrative action,” as he put it in The Open Conspiracy (1928 / 1933).
By the play’s final scene, Wells’s original sunlit Eloi and darkling Morlocks have sort of re-emerged, although in changed guises. This kind of re-imagining is typical of the play’s relationship with its source material: teasing, sidelong, magpie-ish, a set of fuzzy resonances muddled in with many criss-crossing allusions — to Virginia Woolf’s work or Laurel and Hardy or Studio 54-era disco bangers or the 1980s Ghostbusters movies — so you’re sometimes unsure when you’re imposing patterns on white noise. Our Time Traveller has some odd little bickers with the Computer (Graeme Rose) — “No it isn’t!” Yes it is!” “No it isn’t!” — is that just an argumentative loop, or a fragment of knockabout music hall comedy, or a time loop? We certainly encounter time loops elsewhere, notably in the institute for Research, Skepticism and Innovation. RSI: a cheeky hint that time loops may cause Repetitive Strain Injury? Our Time Traveller spends eight days on one of their Time Tasks, just like Wells’s spent eight days in the future. Our Time Traveller is intent on saving the world via scrupulously transparent lawbreaking, just like in Wells’s later work The Open Conspiracy. “The present rudimentary development of collective psychology obliges us to be vague and provisional about the way in which the collective mind may best define its will for the purpose of administrative action,” as Wells put it in … wait. Have we been here before?
In a kind of epilogue, we are reminded that this Time Machine was written a few months ago. The subtext is: all this plague stuff is prescient, not opportunistic. For any science fiction writer, one of the hazards of the trade is that the real world will steal your ideas. On one hand, getting pummelled by wave after wave of science fictional pandemic was exactly what I wanted from my Wednesday night out. Plus there was a spooky immersive bonus that everyone I overheard on my journey back seemed to be discussing some version of the play. And to its credit, whenever the play invokes pandemics, it generally ensures the interactions with class and political economy are in the foreground.
On the other hand, anything that is suddenly and unexpectedly very timely runs the risk that, in certain aspects or dimensions, it also becomes untimely: now’s not the time, it’s too soon, it’s a bit dated, we can’t waste time on that, all at once. Partly, it’s a reconfiguration of what is well-known and what is obscure. But there’s more to it than that. Subtle shifts in tone and mood — or shifts in “meta-moods,” the moods that moods themselves are in — can also express this out-of-jointness.
Take, for instance, some of the Time Traveller’s more maverick and confrontational moments. At one point the Time Traveller reveals that they have tricked us, that they have prowled around in our homes and manipulated us to become their co-conspirators. Not long ago that moment might have awakened and delighted, but amidst the first stirrings of social distancing and mutual aid, doesn’t it suddenly feel a bit different? The mischief loses its humorous edge. We are humouring it. I’m exaggerating.
And if it had been written a few months later, if it had been written now? Perhaps it might enjoy opportunities to be more specific and detailed about the risks and vulnerabilities of our systems of governance and economy when faced with a pandemic crisis: the challenges of containment and mitigation so long as people still have rent and mortgages and debt interest to pay; the sluggishness of the profit motive alone to produce the ventilators, ICU beds, sanitizers, and other resources necessary for survival; the foreboding feeling in the UK as an austerity-wracked health service and welfare state gears up to face an immense challenge; the specific struggles faced by the US healthcare system in particular, given the relative wealth of the US.
And if it had been written in a few months’ time? We’ll get back to you.
Let’s finish with a few nitpicks, then a final thought about time-travelling from Wells’s day to our own.
This play take pains to equip you for chaos. On several occasions I mis-stepped in a temporal eddy and ended up with different colours of socks, or something of that nature. An imaginary number of toes: whatever transpired, I always found I had all the negative capability I needed to cope. All that is great and really well-done. Even so, I think we could have done with just slightly more heavy-handed signposting of what was being expected of us imaginatively, and of the most indispensible plot points. In a promenade production in a library labyrinth, attention is always going to be diffuse and unpredictable. So foolproof that plot! If there’s something we need to know, tell us early, tell us often, tell us in diverse ways, and even err on the side of labouring the point.
Specifically, there were one or two things that clicked for me afterwards which would have been better acknowledged in the moment. For instance, there’s an important foreshadowing, early on, about two different theories of time travel. Can we change history? Or is history resilient, so that any would-be Time Meddler finds their meddling always mysteriously comes to nothing? It is very neatly tucked into a lively back-and-forth between Time Traveller and Computer … but maybe a really unmissable call-back in the penultimate or the final scene could have made the conclusion feel more cohesive and weighty.
I also left with a head buzzing with unconfirmed suspicions, although that probably comes with the territory. For instance, I was a little perplexed about when exactly Time Traveller and Scientist run off to become buddies? Is the gag that the Time Traveller’s demo (“Hold it to your chest like this and say ‘Zoom!'”) is an actual time jump, and within an apparent moment many months have elapsed? — or am I overthinking that bit?
And then there’s this bit where you file past Chat Show Host (Funlola Olunfunwa) talking to someone on the phone, and I think the person they’re talking to might be you (at least, someone in your party) ten minutes earlier. Well, I’m not sure if that was the intent, but if it was, the volunteer who made the earlier call could perhaps have been railroaded into uttering some memorable phrase, which Chat Show Host could repeat. “Ask them if anyone is allergic to [zany foodstuff in the afterparty buffet],” something like that?
Were there any fireworks in that crate that somehow escaped the blaze? I wonder if more could have been made of the weird temporality created by staggered entry and simultaneous performances. Really there should be an audience plant in each group, who makes a spontaneous-seeming quip at some point … so that later, when you almost run into the group behind you, you can overhear the same quip. “Don’t worry about them, they’re just us an hour ago. Don’t look too closely though or we might all cease to exist,” that kind of thing. It doesn’t sound like a stage manager’s logistical nightmare at all.
More generally, I grew madly curious about those alternative versions playing out all around us. Four actors depict the Time Traveller, and our particular manifestation — the very engaging Rhodri Lewis — was frequently abuzz with frenetic, agitated, zany gusto. Of course, it makes perfect sense for the character … but I’d also have been interested in how a gentler, more knowing, even sometimes more deadpan energy would have worked in some of the spaces.
(My co-editor demurred on this point: “It’s a library, characteristically quiet and reserved, and you need that brashness to build us a bridge to this alien universe of adventure.” Well, I guess. And surely the right energy really depends on the group of theatregoers themselves, and I have no idea how typical our group was. Faint chuckles, smiles and sympathetic nods, knowing airs, someone scribbling notes, just about game enough to sit or to stand or to hold things as asked by the Time Traveller, an unspoken pact to treat all direct questions as rhetorical, occasional long-suffering smirks, at least one person who kept sneaking off … wait, were we a nightmare?)
So who, in the end, is Creation Theatre’s Time Machine actually for? This new Time Machine is a bold and generous work which mostly holds together, and when it doesn’t, falls apart in interesting ways. It’s for those who’ve read Wells’s version and also for those who haven’t. It’s for science fiction fans of course, but certainly not just science fiction fans. It’s recommended for ages 12+ and does have a kind of “fun for the whole family” atmosphere, inasmuch as that’s compatible with the subject matter. But then, if you’re not teaching your kids about omnicide-adjacent climate collapse and pandemic cataclysm, what are you teaching them?
Above all, the play is for “the public,” a creature as speculative and shadowy as any Eloi or Morlock. And like many speculative fabulations, “the public” wields some very real power, not least that it is a key mediating myth that allows creative workers, cultural institutions, arts funders, and academic researchers across science and the arts to undertake exploratory collaboration in the first place.
So that got me thinking: Wells also wrote for “the public,” so how might this mythic creature, and the real power that it wields, have evolved since Wells’s day? The play holds a hint of nostalgia, ever-so-slightly abashed, for an early C20th moment when culture, politics, and “the public” were all a little more tightly integrated, and scribbling novels or putting on weird interesting plays seemed a sensible strategy to influence world history. Winston Churchill certainly read Wells and took his forecasts seriously. (For more on that connection, by the way, see the science fiction exhibition opening later this year, plagues permitting, at the London Science Museum, and curated by Vector editor emeritus Glyn Morgan). Wells’s pampered and etiolated Eloi, along with E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, were also certainly in the back of the economist John Maynard Keynes’s mind when he wrote his classic essay ‘Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren’ (1930), forecasting a society no longer dominated by scarcity and necessity but by prosperity and freedom.
Then again, maybe it’s more than nostalgia. Amid debates around disaster capitalism and disaster socialism, Keynes’s essay is suddenly very timely again. It does seem that science fictional concepts, themes, and language — around AI; automation and post-work; climate change and geoengineering; disease, medicine, and synthetic biology; surveillance and privacy; utopia, dystopia, and the end of capitalism; and of course apocalypse — are much more prominently part of political discourse than they were at any time in the second half of the 20th century. We are of course not living in quite the future that Wells or his peers imagined, but we are living in a future where the technological, political, and socio-economic ideas and language they explored have a quite urgent resonance.
We briefly buttonholed the playwright, Jonathan Holloway, after the show. I pointed out the obvious: despite its ample japes, this play makes a very bleak use of a science fictional conceit that could lend itself to mapping out myriad alternative scenarios. After all, there are positive visions of the future.
Jonathan agreed. He’d written it this way, he said, because never in his life had he lived through a time where the world felt as precarious as it does now.
(1) More generally, the Library threaded in a discreet but constant way through the life of Wells’s social circle, which included people like Henry James, Ford Madox Ford, Stephen Crane and Joseph Conrad (plus beefs with Virginia Woolf and George Bernard Shaw).