“To keep you safe,” comes the sinister refrain, like a mantra. Rachel Baynton and Gillian Lees—two thirds of vital radicalists Proto-type Theater, bedecked in gaudy pink balaclavas like an off-brand Pussy Riot—walk us through the emergence and implications of mass global surveillance, and from the off it’s hard to look away.
These are things we’re all aware of, thanks to mounting coverage of whistleblowing and the shaky policies of social network giants. Privacy has been the buzzword of the late 2010s, a hangover from years of blindly handing over personal data, but now the questions being asked are increasingly fatalistic: how far is too far? How late is too late? What can be done?
A Machine they’re Secretly Building might take its name from an Edward Snowden quote condemning US surveillance practices, but its scope is bigger than the 2013 NSA discoveries. As a lecture performance, factual exposition is given priority, supported by slick visuals, but when the truth is this scary, there’s little room for fictionalising. That said, Baynton and Lees do take choice scenes to act out, and the switch from theatrical lecture to compelling micro-dramas is always seamless, bolstered by Andrew Westerside’s economical writing.
Among its many strengths, A Machine... excels for the tone in which its activism is pitched. Too many productions veer into shouty finger-pointing and belittling admonishments, leaving us feeling cold, sheepish and helpless. Proto-type Theater know that we’re only human and lead busy lives, and that keeping informed of our digital rights is difficult and often overwhelming. It’s a tricky thing, terrifying an audience into action without eradicating all hope. A Machine... walks that knife-edge triumphantly well.