The last time we saw erstwhile Globe and Bush boss Dominic Dromgoole, it looked like the classics were now firmly his bag: he followed his decade of boisterous Shakespeare plays with a West End season of Wilde comedies, and had announced plans for stage versions of ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Dracula’ at Hackney Empire (though they never actually materialised).
He’s been off writing books and making films since then. But he now makes a low-key, somewhat confounding return with the UK premiere of Jordan Harrison’s 2014 play ‘Marjorie Prime’. It’s an aggressively austere and in many ways astoundingly prescient drama about a near future in which people recreate their deceased loved ones as AI avatars called ‘Primes’.
Okay, I’m not sure about the avatars bit (it’s vaguely intimated that they’re holograms of some sort, though are obviously played by human actors). But as ChatGPT enjoys its moment in the sun, there is undeniably something to Anne Reid’s elderly, dementia-suffering Marjorie talking to a youthful replica of her late husband Walter. The conversation is a disconcerting mix of nostalgic reminiscence, therapy session and confessional, with Richard Fleeshman giving great uncanny valley as Walter: perma smiling and friendly, but ultimately disconcertingly lacking in emotion. He often hits the walls of his programmed knowledge, and demands more.
Also in the mix is Marjorie’s fragile middle-aged daughter Tess (Nancy Carroll) and her amiable husband Jon (Tony Jayawardena). Initially they seem only to be there to act as another form of support to Marjorie. But as Harrison’s terse play proceeds, they end up taking centre stage, their use of Primes more troublesome than Marjorie’s.
There are great moments. On the lighter side of things, there are a couple of amusing gags about the future setting and Reid’s elderly Marjorie having cultural reference points (Beyoncé, for instance) that go over the heads of the younger characters. But there’s certainly something compelling about both the notion AI might be used to make a simulacrum of the dead, and also the idea of them ending up as strange half-people, independent in their way but defined by the information they have been fed. The concluding, stilted conversation between a trio of abandoned Primes is deeply troubling.
It’s also well-acted, particularly Reid, who gives a smartly dissembling performance as Marjorie, who is, in many ways, far less fragile than her daughter.
In the end, though, I don’t think compelling ideas are enough to see it through. It feels both too short and too static, a lack of meat on the characters’ bones running up against the glacial stillness of the scenes. For a sad play about people in mourning, it never really feels moving. It feels overshadowed in this respect by its most obvious comparisons, like ‘Solaris’ or Caryl Churchill’s ‘A Number’. Thought-provoking and full of ideas, but it’s lacking in heart and Dromgoole’s austere production doesn’t exactly help the medicine go down. If this is the future, it’s a cold place.