sat 13/07/2024

Marjorie Prime, Menier Chocolate Factory review - superbly acted chiller about a contemporary crisis | reviews, news & interviews

Marjorie Prime, Menier Chocolate Factory review - superbly acted chiller about a contemporary crisis

Marjorie Prime, Menier Chocolate Factory review - superbly acted chiller about a contemporary crisis

Pulitzer finalist asks how good an ally is modern technology

Family at war: Nancy Carroll and Anne Reid in 'Marjorie Prime'Manuel Harlan

Artificial intelligence has become an even hotter topic since Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime was first staged in Los Angeles in 2014, so it’s not surprising that the play’s handling of AI is being seen as its unique selling point. (It subsequently played Off Broadway and was made into a film.) 

The developments Harrison features have become increasingly commonplace, especially the recent rise of the chatbot as a crafter of information; mini-robots are even being developed as “carers”. What Marjorie Prime is probing, though, seems ultimately less literal and much weightier than whether computerised tools are suited to that last role. It’s a lean 80-minute journey into the heart of a modern quandary.

The play opens with a conversation between 85-year-old Marjorie (Anne Reid) and a permanently smiling younger man in a sharp suit, Walter (Richard Fleeshman). Marjorie’s smart living room (design by Jonathan Fensom) overlooks the sea; she seems to be well-heeled, though the room is surprisingly low on personal effects. As her mental state shifts, so does the view through the window, moving from total fogginess to a melodramatic sunset that bathes the interior with a lurid orange light (excellent lighting is by Emma Chapman).

As the conversation between Marjorie and Walter progresses, it’s clear she is suffering from some form of dementia. It’s also clear that he isn’t her husband Walter, and he isn’t human either. That’s a fact he doesn’t disguise, openly admitting from the outset that he is only as good as the information he holds (what the computer world used to call Gigo: garbage in, garbage out): “I sound like whoever I talk to.” We later learn he is from a company called Senior Serenity.

What Walter has in in his memory comes from the memories of his clients, banked knowledge built up via his encounters with Marjorie and her daughter Tess (Nancy Carroll) and son-in-law John (Tony Jayawardena). Between them they have created a stored history of Marjorie’s life for Walter to consult in his conversations with her: her career as a violinist, her marriage to Walter (“my best lover”, who had died 10 years earlier), their two dogs, both named Toni, and their son Damien. There is also her admirer, Jean-Paul, who carried a torch for her for 50 years, it seems. 

What Marjorie does and doesn’t remember, her slide into oblivion, isn’t the point of the play, however. As it unfolds, it addresses a big epistemological issue: how do we know what we know? How far do we trust our memories? How far do we trust other people’s memories? 

Tess seems to have had a turbulent relationship with her mother and cannot speak about her brother. Her own mental imbalance becomes increasingly obvious. This is a wonderful performance by Nancy Carroll: breezy yet brittle, hinting at the dark currents below her surface competence. She cannot find common ground with her mother, but whose fault is it? She moves from annoyance to solicitude on a dime, When her brother is mentioned, her quicksilver face conveys a chilling sense of tragedy. Her husband, meanwhile, a bear of a man with a calming commonsense outlook, is left to keep the family show running; Jayawardena has the full measure of his bluff good-heartedness.

Richard Fleeshman in Marjorie PrimeThe centre of this small universe, Marjorie is a gift of a role for Anne Reid, who can milk every line for the right degree of pathos, or outright comedy (you don’t expect the phrase “French-Canadian” to be a big laugh line). She is both a dignified, waspish matriarch and a difficult, flustered patient, especially bitchy to Tess. Fleeshman (pictured right), too, hits two bases at once. He's a model of how to play an android: not too obviously robotic but not too obviously humanised either. Dominic Dromgoole directs with an assured hand.

Saying more about the plot would risk serious spoilers. The action glides gently to a quiet but shocking conclusion. After it’s over, you can still feel the weight of its concerns, and note how these have become more alarming, perhaps, since Harrison wrote the piece. In the past decade, we have learnt that technology allows us to disseminate untruths widely and to have them accepted as true. But the play also suggests that mediating the “truth” may be an inevitable consequence of our desire to create a version of it we can live with. Is all our history “fake news”?

Marjorie is a gift of a role for Anne Reid, who can milk every line for the right degree of pathos, or outright comedy


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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