By Andrew MacNiven
‘Robots vs Art’ is ostensibly a comedy, and while there are undoubtedly laughs to be had here, delve below the surface and this play is an intriguing examination of important social and philosophical themes. Presented by The Blue Room Theatre and thatsanono, it benefits from the engaging dialogue and intelligent exposition of playwright Travis Cotton.
Giles (Damon Lockwood) is a former theatre director who, like the rest of the human race (those who have not been mercilessly exterminated), is imprisoned and enslaved by robots. He is summoned from perpetual toil in the mines by Executive Producer Master Bot (Sean Walsh) to help the robots create their first piece of art.
Giles, as the only human, is naturally the most sympathetic character, and Lockwood brings a deep pathos to the role. Renee Newman-Storen (German Integrator Bot) and Ben Mortley (Soldier Bot/Claw Bot) give intentionally wooden (or should that be metallic) performances, from which much of the humour is derived.
The studio at The Blue Room Theatre seats around 50 people, and the intimacy of the action is immediately striking. The small venue might have proved a hindrance, were it not for the intelligent set design and clever use of props by Director-Producer Philip Miolin and Stage Manager Jennifer Friend. The utilisation of video projection (Tim Barretto) – in addition to the consummate lighting and sound skills of Joe Lui – provides an added layer of immersion, helping to convey the impression of a larger and more realised setting.
Subtly imbued throughout the narrative is an underlying conservationist message. Giles visits the ‘Overgrown City’, which has been reclaimed by nature since humanity’s downfall. He expresses surprise upon witnessing the now verdant surrounds, but to the robots it is logical that, as they require oxygen to power their own internal systems, they would not emulate humanity’s degradation of the environment and thereby cause their own self-destruction.
The robots do not favour one form of life over another; their rule is the ultimate expression of species egalitarianism. When challenged on the robots’ harsh methods, Executive Producer Master Bot responds that the planet has faired better under robot guidance than when humans dominated the planet and caused vast extinctions of flora and fauna.
There is a clear Stoppardian influence on this tragicomedy, evident in the way in which serious issues are approached with wit, verve and a dash of Absurdism. The second half employs a ‘play within a play’ structure that explores the creative endeavours that go into the conception of any piece of art, as well as the battle for recognition that follows. Indeed, the biggest laugh of the night came when Giles recounted his former life as a struggling theatre director, at which point he broke the fourth wall to glance knowingly at the confined environs of The Blue Room Theatre.
‘Robots vs Art’ is at its best when it aims high. The most arresting and enduring image of the performance came from the robots: a vision of Paris’ Arc de Triomphe entangled and encapsulated by vines, over the centuries suffocated and ultimately crushed in nature’s ultimate reclamation; an expression of the transience of human edifice.
Like the greatest artistic works, ‘Robots vs Art’ is not merely art for art’s sake; it holds up a mirror to the society in which we live.