“Planet Lem”

at Old College Quad, Thursday 16th August 2012

Doctor Who. Robot Wars. Teletubbies. These are just a few of the things which come to mind during Teatr Biuro Podrozy’s zany and bizarre production of Planet Lem, which takes inspiration from the work of Stanislaw Lem to create a story which demonstrates the control machines have over our lives. But though this is a spectacular and technically ambitious production, the storyline is a little thin and sometimes the design of the show feels a little gratuitous.

A human finds himself on an alien planet surrounded by tall robots and globular inhabitants who mine for energy in return for being cared for by their machine rulers. This goes on for about fifty minutes before the final scene, which sees our human friend helps to liberate them and they rise up against the machines. As soon as he leaves, however, the alien beings aid the robots back to help so they can once again be oppressed.

The story is pretty thin, and the performances verge on silly (though this is forgivable considering the difficult conditions). For a long time, Planet Lem seems to go nowhere, but a key moment involves a talking head of Stanislaw Lem describing how “we became a subspecies” to machines, and then it all makes sense. These Teletubby-like creatures are at the whim of the robots, like us, but the twist at the end shows they can’t live without them. It could be seen to be a very pessimistic ending, until it’s remembered that a torch was given to one of the aliens before the human’s departure, suggesting that it was this infiltration of technology which led them to return to the past; if they had been pure, there would have been no need for technology.

Though the show features some warped, booming music and an array of lighting effects, the best moment comes between the human and his adopted robot ‘butler’, as they try to teach one another their ways. It’s a beautifully observed and charming scene, and the scarceness of these moments makes it hard to engage with the rest of the piece. If there were more of these moments, there wouldn’t be as much time to make silly mistakes like skidding on skates.

It’s difficult to know whether the clumsiness caused by the stilts and roller-skating is a conscious decision to reflect the home-made aesthetic of early sci-fi films or whether it’s an unfortunate side-effect of very complicated tech. The few slip-ups draw focus a little too much and occasionally draw embarrassed sniggers from an audience, but then with tech as extraordinary as this these accidents are perhaps unavoidable.

Planet Lem is a visual extravaganza which goes a little way to pastiching the sci-fi genre on stage, but the problem of elongated set-pieces and too much reliance on spectacle means the human questions aren’t quite answered. As far as I can tell, there is nothing quite so technically stunning as this on the Fringe in 2012, but the unexciting storyline means Planet Lem often feels like little more than an excuse to show off.

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