Uncanny Valley review – a menacing robot examines the meaning of life | Theatre


It’s the fingers that get to me. Bitten and weathered, the skin worn down in places, they are incredibly detailed and utterly convincing. I’m looking up close at an animatronic, or robot, of the German writer Thomas Melle. The show proper – a lecture delivered by this robot – has finished and the audience has been invited on stage to study our automated actor. It feels like viewing time at the zoo and I can’t shake the feeling that this robot is somehow going to wake up, reach out and grab me.

Robo-prop …Uncanny Valley.
Robo-prop …Uncanny Valley. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The animatronic, created by Chiscreatures Filmeffects GmbH, is an enthralling production in itself. It looks and sounds like a slightly flattened but fascinating human being. His features seem smudged, his face animated yet oddly deflated.

His eyes look trapped inside his skin and when he turns, with slow and deliberate movements, we spot – with a shock – wires dangling from the back of his head.

The lecture doesn’t quite deliver. Written by Stefan Kaegi of the German theatre group Rimini Protokoll, in collaboration with Melle, it’s a dense and earnest monologue penned from the perspective of this thoughtful writer.

Big reverberating questions are posed: how much control do we have over our lives? What sets us apart from robots? If we eliminate life’s uncertainty, what are we left with?

They’re pertinent ideas but seem somehow beside the point. The show’s most meaningful moments are much less deliberate. As we file into the theatre, Melle’s animatronic sits in the shadows. Is he switched off, or is he waiting? Later, Melle’s monologue discusses his manic depression. The robot’s face stays exactly the same … doesn’t it? Then how does he suddenly look so sad?

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