You don’t expect to see science fiction at Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre, a company best known for its crowd-pleasing takes on domestic dramas, comedies and modern classics. But in many ways, Jordan Harrison’s 2014 Pulitzer finalist – a play that’s driven by humanoids and artificial intelligence technology – feels like core Ensemble territory. That’s because, at its core, it’s a neatly structured and deeply human story about love, loss, memory and what we leave behind.
Marjorie (Maggie Dence) is 85 years old and gradually losing her memories. She’s long since lost her ability to play the violin due to arthritis, and she’s also lost her husband Walter. Thankfully she’s living in the not-too-distant future, and her family has purchased her a “prime” – an android that takes the form of Walter at 30 years of age (Jake Speer) – to provide comfort and support. The prime develops as Marjorie and her relatives speak to it, absorbing their memories about Walter and coming to mirror him more closely.
Marjorie is cared for by her daughter Tess (Lucy Bell) – who’s deeply suspicious of the prime and struggles to find any real connection with her mother – and Tess’s husband Jon (Richard Sydenham). But as in many of these kinds of family dramas, there are unspoken secrets, and when they’re revealed – particularly to the prime – long-suppressed tensions start to bubble up to the surface.
Harrison’s play is constantly intriguing and develops in gentle but unexpected ways as the full extent of this family’s loss is revealed. The characters are beautifully drawn and detailed, even if some of his dialogue has a tendency to be a blunt. The play has proven hugely popular, has drawn comparisons to Black Mirror, and was turned into a film last year starring Jon Hamm as Walter.
Director Mitchell Butel has found all of the play’s quiet dignity and drawn the relationships between the characters with integrity, even if it doesn’t quite burn with the passion lying between the lines of dialogue. But the production looks and sounds gorgeous thanks to Simon Greer’s elegant set, Alexander Berlage’s lighting (a combination of sci-fi references and middle class domesticity), and Max Lyandvert’s compositions.
The performances are all solid, but it’s really the women who shine brightest, and Bell who holds everything together in a role that feels tailor-made for her talents. She fights against the steady implosion of her world and it’s heartbreaking to watch. Dence also shows her versatility and sharp comedic timing as Marjorie.
Richard Sydenham is appropriately sympathetic as Jon and Jake Speer is believable as an android, but could ease off on the robotic movements just a touch; he’s a bit too eerie for anybody to find him much of a comfort.
Harrison avoids most of the other clichés associated with sci-fi, which allows you to invest fully in these characters and the fascinating world they inhabit – one that’s disconcertingly not too different to our own.