The Turk

The Lowry, Salford; Saturday 26th January, 2019



Deep in the hold of a 19th Century cargo ship, a desperately fatigued old man prepares for the coming of his death – old age and illness have joined forces to create a formidable nemesis which he knows he can now no longer challenge.

The crew grow ever more concerned for his well-being – he’s locked himself away for six days and he shows no sign of emerging, even though the vessel is less than a day away from reaching port.

But he has only two concerns as he wearily accepts his inevitable fate: twelve bottles of fine wine and the constant torment of his travelling companion – the silent and menacing being known only as The Turk.

Based on the true story of a mysterious late-18th century chess-playing automaton that shocked and scandalised audiences all over the world, The Turk is a dark and sombre one-man show that explores the formation and ultimate demise of human character and individuality.

Writer and performer Michael Sabbaton plays the role of German showman Johann Maelzel – a man most notably remembered for his invention of a metronome which eventually  became a favoured accessory of his close friend Ludwig van Beethoven. But Maelzel was also an 18th century gadget freak, a passion which led him to purchase a mysterious chessmaster robot which amazed audiences everywhere as he took it on a lucrative tour all over the world.

Maelzel’s drunken ramblings begin as a hateful tirade against his mechanical companion. With most of the contraption still neatly packed away in wooden storage crates, only The Turk’s head has been extricated, and it presents quite a foreboding spectacle. The eyes are lifeless and there is no part of it which moves, this initially presents Maelzel with a target for ridicule as he gleefully points out that the head without the body is lifeless, soulless even.


But the insults soon begin to ring hollow, it becomes clear that despite The Turk having no ability to respond, somehow it manages to break Maelzel down. Maybe he’s assigned too much emotion to this lifeless robot of his? Maybe, in his drunken state, he’s beginning to completely lose his mind? Or maybe The Turk might have some mystical powers after all?

The bulk of the performance is a deep and distressing analysis by Maelzel of how a machine comprised of clockwork ticks and clockwork tocks has managed to falsely convince so many of its humanistic qualities. But Maelzel’s own boastful take-down of an inanimate robot serves only to reveal that he himself might also be lacking some very essential human traits.

The Turk is a complex and pensive theatrical experience which, on the face of it, heaps pity upon a man who died a tragic and lonely death having spent a lifetime assigning far too much credence to a lifeless robot that was never going to love him back. But the parallels with contemporary times are fascinating, most notably the modern day reliance on technology and our near-obsessive infatuations with social media. We all want to be seen, we want to be heard, and we all want to be loved – two centuries after The Turk first appeared, are our modern-day robots not the ones we hold in our hands?

Photography: Peter Williams



Performance aspect Comments Score
Visual pleasure A dimly-lit set made up of stacked wooden crates made for a rather grim and depressing scene, but it was perfect for the theme of the show. The sinister head of The Turk seemed to steal the show visually, almost as if it was watching each audience member individually.   4
Auditory pleasure Beautiful sound effects filled the entire show to create a wonderful sense of being below deck on some ancient seafaring voyage: the sound of wood creaking, waves crashing, and the occasional cry from a seagull. Sabbaton has also put huge effort into writing the songs that served to act as flashbacks to mostly happier times in Maelzel’s life. 4
Architecture & Theme The concept of a man battling against a seemingly lifeless and soulless robot is fascinating one, as such this is a brilliant piece of writing. What didn’t seem to work quite so well was the insertion of songs – despite them being so well written. Several were far too jovial and comical and seemed to clash against the otherwise sinister mood of the main narrative. This also led to the performance being slightly longer than it really needed to be. 4
Artistic delivery Outstanding acting performance from Sabbaton, who was clearly giving it everything he had. His portrayal of Maelzel was rich and varied, at times he was a pompous old man grumbling and moaning for no reason; at others his macho bravery dissolved and he crumbled into a state of pitiful despair. 5
Overall impact A fascinating piece of theatre that brings an ancient true story to life in a wonderful way. The central portion of the show seemed to lose its way slightly but the opening scenes and the ending were a beautifully well-constructed spectacle that puts this somewhere between a theatrical thriller and a full-blown horror. 3
Final Score: 4.0


Scoring Scheme

0 Detrimental – This aspect of the performance was so bad that it made the overall experience worse
1 Weak – This aspect of the performance was poor
2 Adequate – This aspect of the performance was perfectly acceptable, though nothing special
3 Good – This aspect of the performance was above average, it pleased in some way
4 Excellent – This aspect of the performance was much better than normal, it was impressive
5 Awe-inspiring – This aspect of the performance was exceptional, new boundaries were pushed.


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