Girl in the Machine imagines a future where the messy, complicated, and thankless jobs of care are automated. Sanitised of human contact and compassion, hospitals and medical professionals are obsolete, replaced by a small earpiece called Black Box. Focusing in on one marriage, Stef Smith’s play covers the conflict between technology and human connection, addiction, love, and the philosophy of life.
In the not too distant but unspecified future, technology is advancing as usual and has particularly produced two new achievements: a government run citizen chip inserted into everyone’s arm to collect their data and a private enterprise product that Owen (Brandon McClelland) has brought home from the hospital where he works. It’s unclear what this new device called Black Box is supposed to do, either because Owen doesn’t know or doesn’t want to explain, but he promises it will help his wife Polly (Chantelle Jamieson) with her high stress levels attributed to her job as a solicitor. She inserts the earpiece after a hard day at the office and uses it like a meditation app to help her relax. Soon, though, the media begins to report on suspicious links between Black Box and brain death while Polly continues to grow more and more reliant on the little device to deal with her unarticulated but medicated mental illness.
In an interview with Traverse Theatre from 2017, quoted in the program, Stef Smith explains her motivation for writing Girl in the Machine where a key phrase can be used to summarise the atmosphere of the text: “vaguely terrifying”. Structured as a series of vignettes in Owen and Polly’s home, the story is able to encapsulate a number of weeks and plenty of ground narratively. However, for a science-fiction piece examining non-existent technologies, these gaps in time demand a lot from the audience in terms of detail and explanation to be guessed at, inferred, or simply unknown. This lack of information is then combined with the highest of life and death stakes with thousands of people dying around this apartment, for completely unexplained reasons, and Polly battling her own suicidal ideations. The threat is always vaguely attributed to the Black Box, or advancement in technology more generally, but, without a thorough background of what the technology actually does and how it interacts with Polly specifically, the script is nowhere near robust enough to carry the weight of the philosophising shoehorned into the climax.
Direction from Claudia Barrie plays with the binaries of Smith’s script: life/death, love/apathy, and the somewhat forced nurse/solicitor. Owen is a soft, wet, unremarkable nurse who witnesses death and suffering regularly but feels largely ambivalent about his role as caretaker, unless challenged by arrogant macho-men at office drinks. Polly is high-strung and high-achieving, trying to balance what’s best for her with keeping her husband happy. There is a tepid tension between their career and family goals that is exacerbated by Black Box and then further harmed by Polly’s continued deterioration. Jamieson does well to attempt to convey an unwell woman but the lack of grounding motivations is her downfall. In many ways, the couple’s characterisations appear to be used as markers of the opposition between the sleek, sanitised future and the messy, human past to the effect that they are flat, difficult to sympathise with, and unconvincing overall.
The set design (Ella Butler) comprising a large perspex box lined with strip lighting cleanly mirrored the Black Box as a futuristic capsule alternating between a safe haven and a prison cell. Sound design from Benjamin Pierpoint captured the Siri-esque voice of Black Box while also layering Polly’s poetic thoughts and occasional atmospheric pieces. The diegetic sound barriers became a bit muddled as Black Box’s voice seemed to seep into the open air for Owen to hear at times but perhaps the new technology merely needs tweaking.
In contemporary Australia, the automation of care in the form of customer service and government services is a real issue as made fatally apparent in the reported 2000 deaths attributed to Centrelink robo-debt. Complex variables like poverty, unemployment, addiction, homelessness, marginalised identities, etc all contribute to the dangers of ill-considered technologies. These aren’t stories confined to speculative fiction set in a future time and place, but instead form the fabric of our current relationship with care technologies and the automation of compassion. In attempting to explore the connections and conflicts between technology and humanity, Girl in the Machine faces an uphill battle with a lazy script full of immense plot holes and unforgivable lapses in logic.
Girl in the Machine is running at Riverside Theatres from June 20th – 29th