Review: Rossum’s Universal Robots

Written by Loren Rae

When we think about what a robot is, I surely can’t be the only one who pictures crisp silver metal, the clanking and grinding of cogs, and space-age sounds effects. Having grown up on movies where robots have been a focus for decades—and whether they are taking over the world, or simply serving the purpose of science—I haven’t been one to picture robots with the appearance of a human. Rossum’s Universal Robots (R.U.R) takes all expectations of what ‘robot’ means and places it in a 1920s factory to challenge what happens when we are careless with choices and ignorant of the repercussions of our ambitions.

This is the second show I have seen of Deakin’s Burwood Student Theatre Company (BuST Co), and it took an entirely different path from their previous show Ensomblah: A Second Serve, which was filled with colour, excitement, and musical flair. To walk into the theatre once again unsure of the play’s direction, I questioned whether it would measure up to its previous show, or would its step away from the musical side of theatre into a dystopia be a step too far? Would its stripped-back nature lose audience engagement? And would it be tangible enough (as the audience had to undertake an entirely new world in minutes)? Not a chance. This brilliant show explored more than what makes up a robot, but what makes up a human being.

As an era piece, I was so pleasantly surprised by its creative vision entailing a brilliant script and unique characters that address issues that we face today over whether there will be a point that technology will turn on us. The play takes on ‘biologically programmed humanoids’, or human-looking robots, that serve humans and are argued over to determine whether they have souls. The set was small but detailed, comprised of a desk, a few 1920s gadgets like a typewriter, and some chairs. It was only after a few minutes of sitting in the theatre that I noticed the ‘robots’ standing idly by on the level above the stage—looming—setting an understanding of their presence, and in all honesty, their power.

However, this presence falls away as they leave, and the first act commences. We are met with Harry Domin, the boss, the one with the ambition, and certainly the loudest one in the room. He spends a few minutes ordering his robots to carry out mundane tasks, while he does nothing but talk. He is a smart character who always seems to be covering his own tracks, never admitting to a mistake, and won’t allow a single doubt over his work at the factory as he produces thousands of robots a day. Perhaps this is why Helena, the daughter of the President of R.U.R, who visits the factory to explore what the robots are and how they are made, brings a sense of relief into the scene with her gentle touch in trying to understand the robots.

What follows is the parade of Domin’s team who works on producing the robots. They appear quite uninterested in much other than the money the robots generate and the labour the robots perform. Dr Gall, Fabry, Alquist, and Busman fall into a relaxed approach, much like their colleague Harry, as they argue numbly that robots are simply made of parts, made to serve, and made to make life easier for humans. What progresses the scene is a familiar argument over what human labour represents, what human experience entails, and why we must hold dear what indeed makes us human: pain, love, anger, happiness, hard work, and empathy. Perhaps I should indulge here that the quality of acting and script made the story not only understandable but intensely believable. It conveyed a story that you think would only exist in dystopian novels, but it is one where you are pulled chest-first into a world that you feel a part of—away from the little theatre and the curtain and the stage and far beyond the walls that we gathered in—and get to experience a world away from our own.

Throughout the subsequent two acts, there is constant reiteration of the powerful versus the powerless, human to robot and vice versa—even when the story moves ten years into the future, and we are introduced to new problems and angers against the actions of the past, and the obliviousness of some characters against the humility of others are revealed. It forms a stronger debate over technological power and what happens when our ability to remain humane, keep our faith, or stick to our ambitions writes our fate. It is as we move into the show’s third act, we are drawn into understanding what lies beyond the room in which our characters stand. To this, I would like to credit how well the show has been cast and produced, as over the course of the show the audience is shaken, heartbroken, left shocked and ultimately grieving, all while an underlying dry humour reminds the audience to breathe.

Rossum’s Universal Robots endures a sensationally clever account of the heavy heart behind human choice and what happens when we are led astray by money and ambition without regard for what is already right in front of us. Modern concerns on a 1920s stage envelops us to understand the basis of humanity and what happens when a touch of human spirit enters a numb assembly line and lets us walk out of the theatre aware that small actions in our everyday life do have a bigger impact if we are willing to try. Being someone who already booked tickets to see this incredible show again, I cannot urge you enough to take a few hours to be transported and transformed and discover if a soul lies beyond the face of a machine.

Rossum’s Universal Robots is running a strictly limited season at Vermont Secondary College from the 27th September until the 5th October 2019.

Get tickets at:

Loren Rae’s work appears in the Power, Tension, and Order editions of WORDLY.

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