Aussie Kelpie Arts
Star Theatres
Until 25 Jun 2017

Review by Paige Mulholland

Most well-known for coining the term ‘robot’, “Rossum’s Universal Robots” was decades ahead of its time when it was written in 1920, and has inspired many other dystopian works to ask the same question – what happens when artificial intelligence becomes too intelligent? Although the performances and technical elements were flawed, it is encouraging to see a play that has rarely, if ever, been performed in Adelaide, particularly in a time where technology is moving so quickly.

The year is 2020, and robots dominate the labour force, producing everything for a fifth of the price of human labour. The staff of Rossum’s Universal Robots, the chief supplier of the robots, feel invincible, even more so when factory owner Harry Domin manages to convince visitor Helena Glory, head of the Humanity League, to abandon her fight for robot rights and marry him instead. But as time marches on and technology improves, the robots become smarter and more complex. Eventually, they realise that they may not need humans at all.

The play itself is bleak, even with the glimmer of hope at the end. Perhaps, with some more chemistry between the characters, the audience may have been able to appreciate the light and shade of the story, but as it was on opening night, it seemed impossible to leave feeling anything but downcast. To be fair, the fact that, with a grand total of eight audience members, the audience was smaller than the cast may have also contributed to the lack of energy in the room, but some unenthusiastic performances certainly didn’t help matters. The use of accents seemed unnecessary, particularly when some were poorly maintained and others almost incomprehensible, and the two romantic leads lacked chemistry, so much so that when Helena accepts Harry’s proposal it is a decision that seems to make no sense. However, the performances were well rehearsed and the timing was excellent – obviously much time and effort went into this production.

The set and costumes in the production were mostly of a high standard (although the “night sky” through the window really needed a bit of ironing), but the venue itself, Theatre Two at Star Theatres, let the production elements down. A squeaky lighting rig, a complete lack of supervision in the theatre (meaning doors were constantly being opened and closed and the audience were free to make noise without fear of reprimand) and very muffled audio narration all stole focus from the production.

With some improvements to the performance and operational elements of “Rossum’s Universal Robots”, the show could have a strong future – after all, dystopia is in and the young and enthusiastic cast have obviously worked very hard to get this far. At the very least, rest assured that the future for this production of “Rossum’s Universal Robots” is more hopeful than the play itself.