Chillingly appropriate for our current society today, LUTheatre’s production of Karel Capek’s R.U.R (‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’) was fantastically scary and intuitive, in all the right ways. Directed by Joshua Rising and Louis Hampton, and produced by Sam Wharvell, this production fantastically highlighted the potential dangers of humanity’s ambitions, but also the importance of what it means to be human.
From having seen several LUTheatre performances now, my highest appraisal goes to the attention paid to characterisation and chemistry between the actors. This is obviously a crucial element of any production – successful or not – but I am consistently impressed and inspired by every production’s dedication to developing every minutiae of characterisation, and character interaction. R.U.R was no exception to this, through the vacancy and unsettling artificiality of the robots, and the vibrant energy of the humans. Emphasising the similarities between them, Helena Glory struggles to tell whether the Management Team is robotic or human, and their eccentricity initially makes it difficult for the audience to tell also, allowing them to experience Helena’s confusion. The Management’s transformation during the production – from passionate, odd technicians, to terrified, powerless individuals – was heart-breaking, as was their and Harry Domin’s desire to protect Helena from worry. Their furtive, quick glances at each other, over Helena’s head, cleverly conveyed their and this raised the tension excellently. Additionally, I was also extremely impressed by Nana’s portrayal: the physicality excellently illustrated her age, compared to the other characters, and her hilarious enunciation in reading words was genius, in cathartically breaking up the tension with comedy. The chemistry between Primus and Robot!Helena was also an impressive display – their proximity, though obviously robotic, conveyed their human elements, and I loved that Primus raised his arm between Robot!Helena and Alquist, instinctively protecting her.
This production of R.U.R was also remarkable for its use of set and space – the Museum Studies building, where it was performed, is an intimate space, but the directors really succeeded in creating an atmosphere focused on technology. When climbing the stairs to the performance, a ‘commercial’, for the robots, is projected onto the wall, emphasising the focus on the robots in the world of R.U.R. The unsettling feeling of being around the robots even permeated the audience, particularly at the start, when four robots walk down the seating aisle, towards the stage. Being unable to see them, mixed with eerie music, made me feel uncomfortable in exactly the right way. The characters’ use of props within the play was also enlightening in symbolising themes. After the interval, amidst the chaos of the humans waiting for their fate, Fabri brings along a cable and drags it across the floor. During the argument over how this situation occurred, Domin and Alquist are standing on either side of the cable. I loved the idea that this line separated their ways of thinking: Domin, focusing on technological progress and profit, and Alquist, valuing religion and gut instinct.
The allocation of sound and lighting, like the set, was remarkable in bringing the audience into this world of androids and advanced mechanics. The noon alarm was unsettling, even when it merely signified the time, but its subversion of becoming the ‘signal’ during the robot attack made it extremely ominous, and unsettling. The solid red lighting also added to this feeling, evoking the feelings of panic and near-doom, compared to the soft, white lighting from before. The interjections of dramatic music also intensified the emotions within the scenes: it accentuated the feeling of despair, towards the end of the first act, when the audience is left with only music and the sad image of Domin and Helena’s embrace. During the arrival of the robots into the office, where Hallemeier is hiding from their view, the accompanying music greatly amplified the tension, leaving the audience breathless in suspense, as if they too are avoiding the sight of the robots.
R.U.R’s central challenge, in terms of acting, comes from its requirement for perfect physicality: the robots look entirely human and, therefore, their distinction from humans must come solely from their artificial posture, movements and expressions. The actors portraying the robots perfectly conveyed this, through their vacant expressions, but also their short, static movements and efficient turns. The play begins with Alquist analysing Marius, Sulla, Daemon and Radius, one by one, and the separateness between the human and robots was supremely evident in their postures and stillness, compared to Alquist’s fluidity. I thought the detail of having Alquist only touching the robots using his pen – to lift their arms, look at their eye, turn their heads – was extremely poignant, in emphasising the central theme of ‘difference’ within the play. Similarly, the actors were excellent in retaining their artificial physicality, when the robots are climbing over the sofa into the office, and this made the attack even more terrifying, and Sulla’s murder of Hallemeier was brilliantly crafted.
Watching R.U.R was an absolute pleasure, and I came away from the production feeling in awe of how the directors and actors had taken a difficult play, and pulled the audience into a world which is so far from – and yet so similar to – our own. Despite being written in the 1920s, Capek’s play is aptly suitable for 2019, and LUTheatre’s dissection of these themes was a pleasure to witness.
LUT will continue with productions in the next academic year! Follow the LUTheatre Facebook page for more information about auditions and upcoming performances! There will also be a stall at the Freshers’ Fair, so be sure to check it out!