Artificial intelligence and robotics have long been a boon to us ethical-scifi buffs, films like AI and I, Robot mercifully saving us from rocket ships and aliens called Xzxvyvrgg. In Jordan Harrison’s play it is inner space – and a recognizable world – which gets invaded by parasitic cyberthink . It takes us forward from our seedling moment with ChatGPT cobbling up its banal cut-n-paste essays. Harrison decides to imagine uses which poke at the very stuff of human identity, memory and communication.
The setting moves on half a century from our present moment in which lonely people chat to Alexa or Siri and geeks dream of downloading their their consciousness into robots and metaverses. In this coming world the “Senior Serenity” organization will set you up a convincing humanoid called a Prime, which can be briefed to chat reminiscently to an old lady with dementia in the persona of a dead husband who can retell her all the prettiest memories of their time together. After all, there is already talk of robotic carers for dementia sufferers.
Director Dominic Dromgoole wisely casts the splendid Anne Reid as Marjorie, a woman who still has an edge of matriarchal cussedness and a not-quite-extinct satirical intent until suddenly her mind closes off, like the closing blind behind her in the sparse kitchen set, quite a metaphor. Her daughter Tess (an equally stunning and movingly truthful performance from Nancy Carroll) has an uneasy, unsatisfied relationship with Mum and a sense of unfulfilment nicely caught in her husband’s terrifying line “How much does she have to forget before she’s not your Mom any more?” But in any case Tess doesn’t really approve of the creepy, stiffish Prime (Richard Fleeshman). He – or rather it – seems humanly normal, if a bit shop-dummyish, until suddenly he says things like “I don’t have that information”.
Meanwhile her husband Jon – Tony Jayawardena – is all for the tech, and likes to keep feeding helpful memories to the thing. Including one tragedy – a son’s suicide – which Marjorie has been trying to forget for half a century.
The ghastly but just-credible folly and absurdity of the culture which came up with this invention is nicely underlined by Tess’ sudden hysterical anti-religious anger at a neighbour having brought Marjorie a Bible. Here is a civilisation which has rejected faith in the soul’s endurance while clinging to a childish refusal to accept that everyone’s gotta die. We all, without dementia, don’t want the past and its beloved people to disappear and never speak again , and it takes balance – or religious reassurance – to accept that it’s damn well going to.
Anyway, nightmare evolutions – gentle and seemingly mild – develop halfway through . With a nasty shock we realize that time has passed and Tess’s neediness is in turn being tended by android computer and what sounds like prompting of a dementia sufferer is actually the priming of a prime. Again Anne Reid does an uncanny turn. There is a horrid circularity about the idea of telling a computer what it needs to tell you .
It’s a clever play, done with typical Menier panache (this little theatre is the home of unsubsidized intelligent originality at only £ 42 quid a seat) and it’s creepily dark beneath the surface. But some of its appeal is in enjoying your own dislike of a future society, soothing its terrors of death and disintegration with AI lies. You leave remembering that all flesh is grass and all memory fallible, and both are much the better for it. Well, I did anyway.
box office menierchocolatefactory.com to 6 May