Machines for Living review: 'the play [is] about casual inhumanity, driven by ignorance, fanaticism, and delusion.'
At first I was slightly irritated by Machines for Living because of its obvious distaste for concrete - it isn’t all bad and sometimes can be used creatively and elegantly. So I kept arguing in my mind against some of the conceits.
But shouldn’t have allowed myself to focus on the trivia, the play isn’t about the material itself, but about casual inhumanity, driven by ignorance, fanaticism, and delusion. The grim concrete tower blocks that still degrade our cities were just the pegs on which to hang the main thesis, man’s inhumanity to man. Immediately after WW2 an attempt was made to re-house quickly the thousands of people living in poor unsanitary and decrepit buildings. Le Corbusier was taken as the priest of the new building rush – his concept that a house was “a machine for living in” was taken up by bureaucrats and architects all over the country and tower blocks of flats began to shoot up all over the our cities
But the play is really about the power and influence of the men or women in power – to force the powerless – their citizens, to conform to a fixed idea irrespective of its merits or lack of them. Where the play scores highly is how this idea is realized, and the self-delusion that sustains it. There is a wonderful use of clichés throughout– fatuous, glib and meaningless, as substitutes for argument and debate. They were piercingly awful (“the sky’s the limit, so get in it”; “the problem’s not the building but the people in it”) as were the stereotypes who said them. And in a way, the purveyors of this gibberish are worse than the various dictators, past and present, because our British politicians seem to be bunglers and amateurs, whereas the latter were (and are) professionals.
The new tower blocks and their promoters were responsible for whole- scale misery and despair after and since WW2, and we continue to suffer from the programmes initiated then (and sustained since) by these petty officials. But that’s not quite the point. The point, and the play makes this most tellingly, is how society always seems to be divided into those who have the power to command, and those who are powerless to resist.
But I think the play tried too hard. It’s reasonable to promote a point of view, such as in Frisch’s The Fire Raisers or Priestly’s The Inspector Calls, but it has to be done with subtlety and nuance, if it is to engage the audience. Those two plays made their arguments with finesse, and in the process, developed a few characters with whom the audience could empathise.
Which is why Machines for Living left me feeling a little unfulfilled. The message was clear and important, but it was delivered with fervour rather than grace.
As always at The Blue Elephant, the small stage and the minimalist props were used to great effect.
Blue Elephant, until June 16; http://www.blueelephanttheatre.co.uk/