EM Forster is better known for novels such as A Passage To India and Howard’s End than for dystopian science fiction. But a world premiere at York Theatre Royal is based on his chilling and startlingly prescient short story The Machine Stops. Published in 1909, it’s set in an underground world where humans have become totally dependent on technology to live and communicate with each other.
“Foretelling the web and its effects from 1909 is quite an achievement,” marvels Ultravox founder and electronic music pioneer John Foxx, who has composed an original soundtrack for the show.
It’s taken director Juliet Forster many years to bring to the stage – but she points out that it was not an interest in her namesake that led her to the story.
“My husband used to find short stories to read to me at bedtime,” she laughs. “One particular night in 1998 he had a book of British short stories so he said he’d read out the first line of each and I could choose which one I wanted to hear. He read the first line of The Machine Stops. ‘Imagine, if you can, a room which is hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee’. I didn’t know it was EM Forster but straight away my imagination caught fire.”
In 1999 she’d thought a timely stage version could reflect the Millennium Bug panic. But, like subsequent efforts, that didn’t work out and Forster says over the years the project “kept becoming more relevant but just one of those things that hovered in the back of my mind.
“In 2012 the Forster estate came back to me and said: ‘There are other people who are interested in acquiring the rights but we know that you’ve been interested for a while – do you want it?’ That was really decent of them – perhaps they thought I was a distant relative – but it forced us to say yes, let’s get on with it’.”
Fate intervened again when Forster, by then associate director at York Theatre Royal, happened to meet an old friend after many years and mentioned the project.
“For some reason, I just said that the person I’d always dreamed of doing the music for this is John Foxx. I was a massive fan and had always felt his music, that sense of dehumanising, would really fit this piece perfectly. To my amazement, my friend said: ‘Oh, I’ve just met him recently through his son. Do you want me to get in contact with him?’”
Foxx had never written music for a theatre production before but says he was “quietly pleased to be able to collaborate with such an astounding piece of seminal sci-fi,” quickly recruiting musical partner and producer Benge to add analogue synths.
“I’d read it in 1964 when I was at school and it had fascinated me then,” he says, adding that his love of Yorkshire, where he lived as a lecturer at Leeds College of Art, was a further reason for his interest in the collaboration.
“You read it again now and in the intervening years the internet has happened, and the world has changed dramatically. The story was still ahead of it all – an amazing feat of predictive imagination.
“The intention is for the music to feel like some shape-shifting 3D presence in the theatre so we used some truly merciless electronica, as well as some fairly delicate treatments.”
Shortly before the premiere, Foxx and Benge will probably be playing some of it live as part of York’s Vespertine project.
“You’ve always got to be on some sort of adventure and it’s still all about music, ideas and accidents.
“I’m sure Mr Forster will be watching in the wings.”
The Machine Stops is at York Theatre Royal from 13 May to 4 June, then touring