revew: machina eX – Lessons of Leaking
Lessons in Leaking/
West Yorkshire Playhouse/
As a game, Lessons in Leaking is largely a success. Another audience member compared it to an escape room and I think they’re exactly right. As a group, we are immersed in a fictional, interactive world and tasked with solving problems to further the narrative. It’s nice, it’s very guided and there don’t seem to be a huge number of potential forks but it’s fun. The audience I saw it with was I think a little larger than it should have been (there was a technical failure when I tried to see the show yesterday so I got put into today’s – I imagine other people did too) so the participatory bits were generally crowded but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.
I do wonder if there might have been a little more instruction, but then we did figure everything out in the end, chaotically at points but in the climate of fucking off out of Europe and Theresa May spinning like a top maybe it’s reassuring to find out that the right group of people can even get a job done through chaos. There were several moments where the actors were waiting for us to accomplish something and would repeat their tags of dialogue in response to what we did exactly like in a classic point-and-click adventure (or something more recent like Heavy Rain). I loved those bits – they’re daft enough moments with an avatar on a screen but having a real person stuck in time like that was just charming.
It is 2021 and Germany are holding their own ‘Dexit’ referendum on whether or not to remain in the European union. A PR agent finds out that the referendum is rigged and it’s up to us to steer her towards what decision we want – whether to release the evidence and let Germany leave, or destroy it and let them remain. There are lots of parallels between the form and content – our struggling to reach consensus, our unseen influence on the characters lives. There’s a lot about the piece which is satisfying, but the narrative had large gaps in it, and there was rarely a sense that our actions put much in jeopardy.
I think the biggest problem I have with Lessons of Leaking is that I don’t understand its world. Saving shots of a motorway and the facade of the Reichstag, we are never shown any exterior shots or context of the Germany in which it is set. There are the obvious overt parallels with last year’s referendum vote in the UK but the idea that Germany leaving the EU would be automatically a terrible thing feels unnuanced and crass. Maybe this can be put down to not translating well to the UK and obviously a German audience would have a better intuitive understanding of the context of Germany within Europe. The future of the show isn’t too distant so it shouldn’t require a huge leap of imagination. The frustrating thing is that I imagine that world is realised for the purposes of the show but we get little opportunity to see it. Just some mention of the world beyond Germany and perhaps what has happened on a wider pan-European scale would be helpful.
The discourse around (before and after) the referendum have been so focused on consequence and our relationships to the rest of Europe that the lack of mention of the like in the show is a real vacuum. I left Lessons of Leaking feeling a little abandoned – the most important decision we are asked to make only ends the show. I have already imagined what might happen and then after we decide to leak the information and see, there is a perfunctory explanatory scene and the show is over. I feel neither guilty nor conflicted about the moral decision we make – it is all too clouded from consequence for me to really understand.
Lessons of Leaking is exciting formally but brief in execution. There’s much more potential for connections to a world beyond the participatory sections and the narrow narrative. I like the form. The story could do with a lot more flesh but it’s interesting. I just think perhaps the two would work with more strength were they divorced and developed separately. Or perhaps with some tweaking there can be a stronger marriage between the two and a divorce would be a little drastic. Our relationship with the performers as spectral spectators could be mined for something more sinister. I want the whole to be denser, more complex, longer and with more detailed a world – which boils down to me wanting more time and effort put into what is an interesting theatre experience (which must already have had loads of time put into it because the technical aspects are pretty damn complex).