“Can we do this thing?”: An interview with Natasha Rickman

Loosely based on H.G. Wells’s classic novel, Creation Theatre’s The Time Machine: A Virtual Reality is a piece of theatre that has 2020 written all over it. A zany and thought-provoking eleganzoom extravaganzoom, the show is simultaneously set in your own living room or kitchen, and in a vast, strange multiverse where “the present is endlessly shifting and the future is strange and uncertain,” and where time travellers “tinker with timelines causing people’s names, faces and indeed the colour of their socks to change without warning.” 

We were lucky enough to be joined by director Natasha Rickman for a deep dive into the process of creation and re-creation. Beyond the original site-specific production of The Time Machine, and this new version reimagined for the digital stage, Natasha’s directing credits also include Twelfth Night (Rose Bankside), Rhino (Kings Head), Hilda and Virginia (Jermyn Street), Honour (The Royal Court), and as associate director, A Little Night Music (Storyhouse), Shirley Valentine (Bury St Edmunds), Comedy of Errors (RSC), and Romeo and Juliet (The Globe). Natasha is also an artistic associate at Jermyn Street Theatre and co-founder of Women@RADA

You may also like to check out an earlier guest post by Time Machine playwright Jonathan Holloway, and Vector’s review of the original production of The Time Machine at the London Library. The Time Machine: A Virtual Reality is playing till 21 June. 

The Time Machine Natasha Rickman
Natasha Rickman

Hi Natasha, thanks so much for speaking with Vector. Are you hearing me OK? My internet’s been a bit funny recently.

Yeah, hopefully we’ll be lucky. My internet’s been actually great the whole time I’ve been making the show, and then just recently it’s like it knows the show is open and it’s just doing its own thing now …

So I guess that’s my first question! When you’re creating a remote theatrical experience like The Time Machine … how do you deal with people’s internets being a bit funny?

It’s definitely one of the challenges of the show. All of the performers are in their living rooms or bedrooms, performing in a variety of locations around the country with varying levels of wi-fi reliability. And yes, performers do sometimes get thrown out of the call. They’ll break up, or their microphone will go. We’ve literally had them be chucked out of a call for a couple of minutes before. 

So we’ve had to create a variety of back-up plans. For example, we’ve got some pre-recorded video which only gets shown if people are having sound issues. We’ve also got a thing called parallel reality. The part of the Time Traveller is played by multiple people. That means if one actor needs to jump and take over, they can shout “Parallel reality!” and do that. We actually had a version of that in the original show as well.

Perhaps the material lends itself somewhat to the uncertainties of the medium? The Time Machine is already about a kind of glitching, melting reality.

Yes, definitely. Jonathan has imagined this world where suddenly you can change where you are, or you can change who you are. Another thing we use is what we call elastic content. That’s content that only happens if it’s needed in the show. We have a piece of elastic content in case someone gets thrown out of a call. It’s a scene that could happen at any time. Basically, there’s a whole load of backup material that only makes it into the show if something goes wrong.

It must be challenging to create scene that can happen at any point. Continue reading ““Can we do this thing?”: An interview with Natasha Rickman”

The Time Machine

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. Continue reading “The Time Machine”

Science fiction in theatre: Callisto – a queer epic

Callisto – first performed in Edinburgh Fringe 2016, is now playing at London’s Arcola theatre until the 23rd of December.  This brilliant and imaginative play packs in so much humour alongside the tragic, the absurd, and the science-fictional, that it is simply unmissable!

Callisto-10.jpgLondon, 1680. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli

The play consists of four love stories set in 1680, 1936, 1978-9, and 2223.  The stories talk to each, the text demanding their simultaneous presence on stage at several crucial moments in the play. These instances are key to some of the thematic threads that span the epic, knitting it together. Each viewer might perceive their own connections, beyond the obvious commonality that is part of the title: each story involves a love affair between people of the same sex. The complexity and the wit of the play are dazzling. There are stories within stories. In 1680s London, Arabella Hunt is an opera star, and we first encounter her rehearsing the lines from Cleopatra:

 

[…] and all the world,

is if it were the business of mankind to part us,

is armed against my love: even you yourself

join with the rest; you, you are armed against me

This sentiment echoes through time, the world is armed against homosexual love even when we are on the moon in 2223, albeit this time through its absence – Cal and Lorn are all that is left of homo sapiens, and only one of them is biologically human. Cal is an android that Lorn built, an android those very conscious existence depends on convincing Lorn that he loves him. With humanity having driven itself to extinction, Lorn is afraid of hope, and hence of love.

Callisto-12Lorn and Cal, Moon, 2223. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli

Continue reading “Science fiction in theatre: Callisto – a queer epic”

AMOLAD Redux

As I mentioned in my post a couple of days ago, after the performance I was told that the end of the stage version of A Matter of Life and Death varies nightly. The script that I’d ordered arrived today, and the first thing I did was to look at how the ending was written. As it turns out, it’s different again from the version I saw, probably explained by the “Note on the text” at the start of the play:

This is the text of a devised show. We began with the screenplay of the original film. Some scenes were rewritten and taken into workshops at the National Studio where they were re-improvised and rewritten again. A new draft was taken into rehearsal, where many scenes were once again rewritten in response to the work of the acting and design company. Although some dialogue has been placed in square brackets to indicate that it is optional, this text is probably quite close to what will be spoken during the show’s run at the National Theatre, but even then it will be subject to continual evolution and change and the occasional inspired improvisation on a nightly basis.

So here are the last few pages of the script. Note that one of the differences with the film that I didn’t mention in my writeup is that June is transported fully to the courtroom.

WOMAN [of Coventry]: Don’t you think they should let some of us go back instead of you? A few of us? One of us? Rather than let you go back so you can enjoy falling in love?

PETER: What?

WOMAN: If the rules are to be broken, why shouldn’t they be broken for us?

PETER: You’re right. Some of them should go back.

Can’t be helped about the parachute. I’ll have my wings soon, anyway, big white ones. Bob? So long Bob. I’ll see you. I’ll see you.

PETER jumps

JUNE’S VOICE: Hello G for George. Hello, G George. Hello, G George.

DOC [REEVES]: Stop! We have to do something. His condition’s critical.

SHAKESPEARE: He is dying. That is all.

JUNE: Peter! I love you, Peter. You’re life and I’m leaving you.

SHAKESPEARE: But don’t think that his love will die with him. His love and this story will live to be told again long after he is dead. It is already the perfect love story.

FATHER: Welcome home. You will soon be at peace.

DOC: Peter. Peter. Don’t listen to them.

JUNE bursts into the court room.

JUNE: Enough! A life for a life. I’ll take his place and you can send him back! Take me not him! Take me not him!

She mounts the escalator and starts climbing.

PETER: Stop. Stop her!

He tries to follow.

JUDGE: Restrain him!

JUNE: You’re safe! You’re safe, Peter.

JUDGE: Stop everything!

Everything stops except JUNE running. She collapses. The escalator carries her down and slows to a halt. She is delivered at the feet of the JUDGE. PETER escapes from his restrainers and goes to her. In their unity they are oblivious of the Court.

Now. How does the Court find?

The RECORDER consults with the CHORUS.

RECORDER: For the defendant, your Honour.

Love cannot mend the horrors of the war we’ve fought. But if we are ever to recover our human dignity, then everyone who survives must find a still place in their heart where a new and simple love can grow. This man and this woman have found that already.

JUDGE: Very well.

He writes a new date on the term of life and shows it to the DOC.

Does this seem fair to you gentlemen?

DOC: Ample.

Goodbye Peter. Good luck. Goodbye June.

[FATHER: Goodbye Peter. I wish you the best in love and life. I will wait for you here.]

CONDUCTOR: Goodbye Peter. I’ll get you in the end.

Magically PETER is back in the hospital, JUNE is at his bedside. Enter DR McEWEN and MR ARCHER.

McEWEN: How is he? Were we in time?

ARCHER: His chances are about even.

The BOY takes a coin out of his pocket and flips it in the air.

IF IT’S HEADS:

The room is a normal hospital with busy NURSES and AIRMEN recuperating. They are talking and laughing. A new emergency arrives and the medical staff immediately swing into action: saving lives is commonplace.

PETER: I won my case.

JUNE: I know.

IF IT’S TAILS:

The room is a normal hospital with busy NURSES and AIRMEN recuperating. They are talking and laughing. JUNE is sitting beside PETER’s body. He is dead.

JUNE: Peter. Peter. Peter. Peter. Peter.

ARCHER: I’m sorry. We did everything we could.

[end]

Some notes:

1. Reading this through again, Dr A’s Life on Mars comparison makes even more sense; the confusion of real-world medical emergency and other-world metaphysical crisis is much more intense than it is in the film, and very reminiscent of that series.

2. I have no idea why the script refers to Frank Reeves as “Doc”.

3. June climbing the escalator was different in the version I saw; on Wednesday, she climbed up the stand by the judge, and he told her that she’d proved her love for Peter.

4. I am pretty sure, although not absolutely certain, that the court recorder’s final speech is different. I remember the line about finding a new place where love can grow, but I don’t think he declares a verdict, and I distinctly remember lines about how any finding must take into account the essential randomness of life and death in wartime. I’m not sure if those were delivered by the recorder or by another character. Then there was the coin toss — although, as I say, we were told that on a previous night it had gone to an audience vote.

5. Otherwise, the ending is as abrupt as I remember.

A Matter of Life and Death

Here are two stories:

Boy meets girl. Boy is fated to die, but a mistake is made, and he lives. Boy and girl fall in love. The next world sends a conductor to collect boy’s soul: boy appeals the decision. A trial is arranged, and held, with boy’s life in the balance. Boy and girl demonstrate their love for one another. Boy wins his appeal — love is greater than law. Boy and girl live happily ever after.

Alternatively: boy meets girl. Boy miraculously survives a leap from a burning plane without a parachute. Boy and girl fall in love, but boy has suffered serious brain damage. An operation is arranged, and held, with boy’s life in the balance. The operation is a success — boy’s belief in love gives him the strength to fight through. Boy and girl live happily ever after.

The original version of A Matter of Life and Death — the wonderful 1946 film written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, starring David Niven as boy (Squadron Leader Peter Carter) and Kim Hunter as girl (American radio operator June) — could have been either story, and was in fact both. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy describes it as a “rationalised fantasy”, which is exactly what it sounds like, and indeed an opening title stakes a claim for reality: “this is the story of two worlds, the one we know and another which exists only in the mind … of a young airman whose life and imagination have been violently shaped by war.” But the screenplay never confirms this statement, and in fact puts some effort into maintaining ambiguity as to what is real and what is not. There are multiple scenes set in the “other world” (to all intents and purposes, heaven) which Peter is not in, and which he displays no knowledge of, and which therefore suggest that the other world exists independently of his mind. And in one of the scenes where the Conductor visits Peter, freezing time for everyone else while they talk, he knocks over a stack of books, then puts them back in place while Peter is out of the room. After the visit, Peter expects the books to be on the floor: that they are not acts as confirmation to June, and to Frank Reeves, the doctor in charge of Peter’s case, that Peter is hallucinating, but we cannot take the same certainty.

The new stage adaptation at the National Theatre (adaptation by Tom Morris and Emma Rice, directed by Emma Rice) keeps the same basic structure, but there are many changes; the fact that it provides an answer about the nature of the other world is just one difference. Although there are gestures in the direction of ambiguity (as in the film, for instance, the judge at Peter’s trial and the surgeon operating on him are played by the same actor), the stage version of A Matter of Life and Death is unambiguously a fantasy. In the equivalent visit to the one I described above, for instance, the Conductor knocks over no books, but at the end of the scene Peter sees the spirit of a man who recently died at the local hospital, without having been told of the death. June and Frank note, and briefly discuss, the impossibility. Even more telling is the fact that, while Reeve dies in a motorcycle crash and serves as Peter’s advocate in the celestial courtroom showdown in both versions, only in the film is Peter told of the accident: in the stage version, Reeve just turns up in heaven.

The reason for the change takes a while to come clear. In the meantime, the production is largely engaging: the leads, Tristan Sturrock and Lyndsey Marshal, give solid performances (and Sturrock arguably has an advantage over Niven in that he looks the right age), and have a slightly more modern relationship to work with. Peter and June’s first date is notably less chaste than its film equivalent, and she accepts rather than declines a drink; when asked how the chess game they’re playing is going, June says “Peter’s very good”, and Peter adds, “but June’s winning”, whereas in the film it’s the other way around; and towards the end of the story, June demonstrates the strength of her love for Peter by volunteering to take his place in death (a life for a life) off her own bat, rather than responding to a suggestion by Reeves. While the film is and remains deeply moving, the relationship in the play seems more immediate, more passionate. Other apects are less convincing. As the Conductor, Gisli Orn Gardarsson can’t match the peerless delivery of Marius Gorling; plus, in this version the Conductor is a Norwegian magician rather than a French aristocrat, and some of the lines (“your British weather!”) sound awkward. He comes across as a broad-brush clown. There’s an occasional lack of nuance elsewhere, too — when discussing faith, for instance, in the film June says she doesn’t really know, she hasn’t thought about it, which sets up a wonderful line from Reeves: “I don’t know, I’ve thought about it too much.” In the play, the positions of the three cast members are much clearer-cut (Peter believes, June is atheist, Reeves is agnostic), and the line is gone. And there are a few changes that are baffling in their triviality. In the film, Peter smells fried onions when the Conductor visits (further evidence, for Reeve, that the visits are hallucinations); in the play, he smells burnt toast.

Rice keeps the stage busy — just occasionally, as in the opening descriptions of the awesome immensity of the universe, perhaps a little too busy — and is occasionally inspired. Reeves, for instance, has a camera obscura which he uses to survey the village where he lives (“a village doctor must know everything; you’d be surprised how many diagnoses I’ve made from up here”). In the play, this shows the landscape around the National Theatre — the South Bank and Waterloo Bridge — complete with incongruous country village locals going about their business. Later, a game of table-tennis escalates, thanks to lifts from various members of the cast, into a virtuoso bullet-time (ping-pong-time?) extravaganza — less absurdist than this, but along the same lines. The musical scene-changes are unexpected, and sometimes feel like padding (the play is a good twenty minutes longer than the film), but also add emotional weight to a number of minor characters, such as the aforementioned dead guy seen by Peter, who gets his own solo. Music is also used to mark the transition between this world and the other: an adequate substitute for, if hardly as striking as, the film’s shift from technicolour to black and white.

The heart of the play, as with the film, is in the courtroom, yet it’s here that the changes are most radical. Part of the original impetus for A Matter of Life and Death was paranoia about potential cracks in the Anglo-American alliance: so June is American, and the prosecutor in Peter’s case is the rabidly anti-British Abraham Farlan, the first man to be killed by a British bullet in the American War of Independence. Consequently, the first part of the appeal, in which Farlan attempts to invalidate Peter’s case purely on grounds of nationality, comes across to a modern viewer — or at least to me — as an unnecessarily lengthy digression, perhaps the one duff moment in the film. Eventually, the real issue is raised, the court descends to Earth, Peter and June (summoned by the Conductor while sleeping) prove their love for one another, and Peter is granted his life. (Or, if you prefer, the surgery is a success.) In the play, by contrast, June is British and Farlan is nowhere to be seen. In his place there are two prosecutors: Peter’s father, who died in the first world war, and William Shakespeare.

The effect of this, if you’re charitable, is to considerably broaden the scope of the debate: it is no longer enough to simply establish that Peter and June love each other, it has to be established that they deserve each other. The film, you could say, was about love among the Allies; in the play, there’s a place in heaven for soldiers on all sides of the war (and of past wars), and it becomes a story about the costs of being a soldier. Peter’s father argues that death is what gives Peter’s life as a soldier meaning, that it will be inspirational, that to die is (in effect) to continue his camaraderie with the men he fought alongside. The most powerful moment in the entire production comes when the prosecution calls to the stand a woman killed in the bombing of Coventry. Why, she asks simply, should the rules be broken for Peter? No answer is offered, because none can be. On the other hand, if you’re less charitable, the change in focus leads to a muddle. There isn’t the clear back-and-forth that there is in the film; instead there are a series of more-or-less effective separate arguments (Shakespeare’s are among the less effective, if you were wondering; in fact, his impact on the trial is strangely cursory). The coup-de-grace comes when an unnamed man steps forward and insists that any judgement must take into account the inherent unfairness of war. They decide to toss a coin to decide Peter’s fate, and he dies, turning the ending from an affirmation of the power of love into a bitter reminder that fate is arbitrary and cruel. It’s an ending that forces the viewer to confront the assumptions they have brought to the story — particularly if said viewer has seen the film; an original play that told the same story would probably not be so discomforting.

The work that came to mind immediately after watching the play was Mary Doria Russell’s novel A Thread of Grace — another World War II story, about which Russell has said that she really did toss a coin to decide which of her characters lived and who died. Rice and Morris, it turns out, have taken the concept a step further, in a way that can only be achieved with a stage production: the outcome changes every night. (And, I was told, it’s not always a coin toss; apparently, the night before we saw the play they asked the audience, in their role as the watching host of heaven, to decide, and they chose to let Peter live.) It’s a compelling choice, and I think explains why the play is so much more clearly framed as a fantasy than the film: it has to be, to give the voices of the dead their due moral force, to prevent them from being dismissed as belated pangs of Peter’s conscience, or complications on the operating table. Almost paradoxically, the change reduces the importance of Peter’s operation — the feeling that his fate lies on the operating table is far weaker in the play — yet makes the story more real. But at the same time, it’s hard not to feel that something has been lost. A friend described the film as “innocent without being naive”, which I think is right: it manages to do an almost miraculous thing, dramatise the life-saving potential of love without feeling as though it’s cheating. Rice and Morris’ play is, if you like, more honest about the nature of life and death, and worth seeing for that; but the innocence is gone.