“The future is just so much more interesting than the past, don’t you think?” The question comes partway through Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film adaptation of Philip K Dick’s novella The Minority Report. I, however, can’t resist posing it right at the start of my interview with director Max Webster and writer David Haig, who are about to open their own adaptation for the stage.
Too soon, it seems. “That’s a big philosophical question!” Webster scoffs. Haig glances wearily at the clock behind me and sighs: “It’s twenty to ten in the morning . . . ”
We’re in Nottingham, where their world premiere begins a UK tour culminating at London’s Lyric Hammersmith. Steering clear of Spielberg, they instead follow the book’s more streamlined plot. Set in a future where crimes are predicted before they’re enacted, it follows the creator of this technology who finds her own name flagged up.
“What’s brilliant about the Philip K Dick story is it’s got a psychological conundrum in the centre of it,” says Webster. “But it’s not a philosophical exercise or lecture; it’s a crime thriller. It’s a person who’s caught by their own system and then is on the run.”
Stage adaptations of sci-fi films have proliferated alongside the rise of the technology — artificial intelligence, spyware, driverless cars — that the films themselves predicted, synthesising our anxieties about the direction in which it’s taking us. Minority Report is one, while last October the Danny Boyle-helmed Free Your Mind brought The Matrix’s warning about AI to Manchester’s Aviva Studios. A technocentric dystopia arrives in the West End with The Hunger Games in the autumn.
At the less gloomy end of the sci-fi scale, Back to the Future celebrated its 1,000th West End performance last month. Its bright colours and ultra-saturated set tap into the appeal of the genre for mind-boggling spectacle. It treats the idea of a trip into the future as a joyride — quite literally when its iconic DeLorean car makes a crowd-thrilling appearance. But it’s fuelled — perhaps ironically for a futuristic piece — on nostalgia, as 1950s and ’80s fashion, music and technology collide with the new.
This preoccupation with technology seems ripe territory for a director whose recent production of Macbeth used binaural sound to ambush or whisper into the audience’s ears via headphones worn throughout. “The truth is that most tech on stage is actually quite old-fashioned,” says Webster. “We could do projection in the ’30s and automation in the 18th century. So really, the key thing is that it’s linked to the story, so you feel all the effects are lined up to support the emotion the characters are going through.”
Haig concurs. “The ambition is to produce a thriller that has a human, emotionally motivated base,” he says. “The excitement of writing it is to try and create a real-time escape concept for the hero — put her under huge pressure for 90 minutes. This is hopefully a white-knuckle ride adventure.”
We’re in a race against time ourselves as both Webster and Haig have hard deadlines closing in. But Webster seems to operate naturally at this high-octane pace. He sits bolt upright, with an alert intensity, leaning forward, while Haig is softer and more contemplative. Webster’s answers cascade out of him, such as when I ask how he’s approached the genre’s balance of social satire with thriller entertainment.
“Sci-fi gets relegated to fiction, and that means people often think it isn’t as important,” he begins. “It’s in some ways a literary snobbism, saying only things that are completely logical are serious or ‘high art’. That sort of story that’s completely realistic is not necessarily the best form for thinking about the problems in our present world.
“The wildness and extremeness that sci-fi allows you to think about possible futures might actually be a good match for the kind of extremity of the times in which we find ourselves.”
As true as that may be, how does a director marshal this wildness and extremity on to the stage? “We have to go in a driverless car, we have to climb over a building, we have to see pre-cognisant interpreters,” says Webster. “It becomes very practically about how we are going to put that on stage in a way that is surprising and convincing.”
I suggest his 2019 production of Life of Pi — a piece of total theatre with high-concept design and actors diving through the floor — proves his flair as a vivid world-builder. “‘World-building’ sounds great,” he laughs. “Like I’m some sort of god painting the universe, but really I’m much more a technician trying to go, ‘Goodness me, how are we going to do this?’ as David piles problems at my doorstep.”
Haig has had challenges of his own. His writing to date has been historical, for example My Boy Jack, which dramatised Rudyard Kipling’s grief for his son in the first world war. Tracking time in this opposite, forward direction has been “a dramatic shift”.
“When I was initially commissioned, I thought I hadn’t got the vocabulary to write it,” he says. “But the challenge was so great and potentially exciting, I said yes.” He’s also interested in how it will land at a time when the architects of AI are emerging from behind the scenes. “The whole explosion of awareness into both the advantages and disadvantages of AI, and how possible it is to actually predict crime, has coincided very nicely.”
The show shares these anxieties with Free Your Mind, which presented the aftermath of an AI takeover, humanity tripped up in its relentless forward march. Dancers appeared comatose — sleepwalking through the machine takeover, drugged up on digital blue light. Choreography strikingly realised the idea that humans have become robots, with well-drilled movements, algorithmic in their precise execution and repetition.
Haig’s Minority Report touches on this “deprivation of free will, free choice, free thought”, he says. “The fear of a dystopian society controlling our minds is a very powerful one. I think there’s always room for material that projects into the future to comment on the present.” And with that, he’s found an answer to my first question after all.
February 16 to March 9 at Nottingham Playhouse, nottinghamplayhouse.co.uk, then touring to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre (March 22-April 6) and the Lyric Hammersmith (April 19-May 18), London