Tuning in to a German production

Alexander Kelly in The Machine, Third Angel production''Photo  by Richard Kenworthy
Alexander Kelly in The Machine, Third Angel production''Photo by Richard Kenworthy

SHEFFIELD theatre and live art company Third Angel are performing their latest project in their home base, the Crucible Studio, next week.

On Tuesday and Wednesday they will present The Machine, an in-the-round theatre production of Georges Perec’s landmark 1968 German radio play, the first time it will be heard in English.

“It’s the first time that we’ve presented a whole text by another writer, which is an interesting development for us,” says Third Angel co-artistic director Alexander Kelly.

“Georges Perec was a French experimental novelist who has become a cult writer. He produced a lot of rule-based work which appeals to us as being in line with some of what we do, Most famously he wrote a novel without using the letter ‘e’ and one of the interesting things was that his translator had to do the same thing as well. And the translator had to follow rules in this case as well.”

The Machine is a playful and subtle comedy about language, meaning, thought and silence, explored through the performers’ deconstruction of Goethe’s poem, The Ramblers Lullaby II.

“There are four voices in The Machine,” continues Kelly.

“There is a systems controller who runs what is happening – the main frame of the computer – and then three others who process that, functioning as software programmers. We all have different jobs to do.”

Kelly and co-artistic director Rachael Walton appear with Teresa Brayshaw and Oliver Bray from Leeds Metropolitan University who run their own theatre company.

The play uses computer programming protocols, randomisation, algebra, French, proverbs, Italian, Lewis Carroll, geography, biography, Nietzsche, Napoleon, Schopenhauer, Verlaine, Schiller, Rimbaud, Brecht, Beckett, Dickinson, Neruda, Borges, German, Kierkegaard and KFC to achieve its linguistic goal.

“We play a lot of word games,” says Kelly. “At one point all the nouns are taken out of the poem and replaced with the fourth word that appears after it in the dictionary. It’s playful and comic but they are actually chosen carefully so they have interesting meanings.”

The idea to develop The Machine for performance came from Third Angel associate Christopher Hall – “a big Perec fan” – who worked with Kelly on adapting the original translation by Ulrich Schönherr which has only previously appeared as a written text.

We did it at Bloc Projects at Off the Shelf last year. We staged it in the round and saw that it works just as voices though we added a soundscape of computer noises by David Mitchell. We noticed some people sat with their eyes closed

It’s an example of one of those side projects that has grown organically, starting as a one-off for Off The Shelf, then presented at GIFT in Gateshead back in May.

The beauty of doing it in Sheffield is we are ‘touring in’ to an existing in-the-round space, rather than constructing one.