Originally written for Exeunt.
Gaming and politics: a combination with tantalising scope. For many of our supposed representatives, politics seems to be little more than a game – one in which the country and its people are gambled for the prize of short-term gains. And then there’s the gaming of politics, the hacking of the system to manipulate results. Elections become just another computer game, but with real winners and losers.
The premise of Lessons of Leaking, then, is intriguing. Part-play, part-game, machina eX’s production promises to insert audiences within a narrative about the electronic manipulation of votes. Not so much actors in the drama as the invisible, controller-clutching forces directing our avatars, the idea is that we, working together as a group, unlock each level in the narrative.
We press start in the living room of Clara and David, a young couple unwittingly caught up in a conspiracy to falsify the results of a referendum on Germany’s membership of the EU. She does PR for the company delivering the electronic voting system; he works for the European Protection Service, a fictional surveillance agency. When Clara finds a mysterious USB stick in her handbag, both of them are dragged into an attempt to uncover a shady deal between the two organisations – a deal with far-reaching consequences for European democracy.
The success of this whistleblowing attempt is up to us. Or so machina eX would like us to think. There’s a clear effort, through intermittent interaction, to make the audience feel implicit in these events and responsible for their outcome. Really, though, our involvement is limited and our engagement – at least in the performance I attended – relatively shallow. Game and politics, rather than being intertwined, feel awkwardly separate.
When the game component of the show works best, we (or at least I) feel like players in a pulse-quickening thriller, racing to discover clues and solve problems. All very well, but fairly detached from the political and ethical issues machina eX are grappling with. And at its worst, the game element is clumsy and laboured (made even more so during this particular performance by some unfortunate technical difficulties). The mechanics of theatre like this need careful working through, and machina eX have some bugs still lurking in the system.
It’s a shame, because the show’s scenario is incredibly topical and the questions it presents – about transparency, privacy, freedom of information, and ends and means – are ones worth thinking through. The problem is, we never have quite enough at stake to fully engage in the debate that machina eX are setting up. Too much of the show is spent establishing or working out the rules of an interaction that offers little to the central narrative other than a superficial sense of involvement.
That’s not to deny the ambition of the piece, which has some impressive technical tricks up its sleeve. There are also some enjoyable nods to gaming conventions: performers periodically glitch, looping dialogue and gestures like videogame avatars awaiting instruction, while multiple options appear on screens. But the audience dynamics could do with the same attention devoted to the tech. Games only work well after testing and testing and testing again. This one is still very much in the beta phase.