Clutching at AI Straws
“…as long as the fiction holds.”
It is a bleak, bare set: white walls and floor with a single white door and a wide flat screen on a stand and a lectern. It feels more like a lecture room than a family room but sitting on the floor at a lap top is Merril (MyAnna Buring). Merril is a software engineer and talking to her sister Angie.
This is the third play I have seen recently about Artificial Intelligence. Marjorie Prime at the Menier examined the use of a hologram for a widow to revisit being courted by her now dead husband. Disruption at the Park was using complicated algorithms to define and attain people’s dreams. Anthropology is more akin to Marjorie Prime.
This is also the third play I’ve seen by America’s most produced living playwright, Lauren Gunderson. I and You was produced at Hampstead in 2018 directed by Edward Hall and The Book of Will was seen this year and we have The Time Traveller’s Wife to look forward to.
A story begins to unveil as we hear Merril talking to Angie. Angie went missing a year ago and is presumed dead. Merril’s answer for her terrible loss is to use AI to recreate her dead sister Angie’s consciousness. She has uploaded everything she has: text, letters, photographs, videos, her sister’s digital footprint, into the program and now can have normal conversations with Angie.
At first Angie is audio but later she (Dakota Blue Richards) can appear on the tv screen and talk to her with independent but relevant views. Angie encourages Merril to reconnect with ex-girlfriend Raquel (Yolanda Kettle). Angie is not a passive memory but capable of texting Raquel to initiate a meeting.
However the program wants more information which can only come from their mother Brin (Abigail Thaw). Brin is a damaged character with a history of substance abuse, a number of failed marriages and various children. When Merril introduces her mother to the Angie program it is met with shock but the mother soon sees this as an opportunity to seek forgiveness for her failings. Brin having had her phone contents added to the program pushes it to tell her where Angie is buried. The answer forms the second part of the play which features many spoilers.
Merril is obsessed with the Angie program and will not give it up despite her friend Raquel’s pleadings. The irony is that the program has initiated contact with Raquel. While Brin has welcomed the recreation of Angie, Raquel is more cautious.
The actors perform well and directed by Anna Ledwich are believable. MyAnna Buring is particularly strong and she is rarely off stage. It is the transition from algorithm to human powers which is contentious.
This play is the first of the Hampstead Theatre Winter season; without any grant funding this theatre’s choices have to be winners. I hope this will be a good start. I also look forward to seeing more of Lauren Gunderson’s writing staged in London.
Written by Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Anna Ledwich
Dakota Blue Richards
Director: Anna Ledwich
Designer: Georgia Lowe
Composer and Sound Designer: Max Pappenheim
Movement Design: Sara Green
Lighting Designer: James White-side
Video Designer: Daniel Denton
Running Time: One hour 40 minutes without an interval
Booking to 14th October 2023