Review by Sam Waite
Computers are, we're told, only as smart as the people who create them – after all, how can someone create something that knows what they don't? In Marjorie Prime, already a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize after it's first US run, artificial intelligence learns from and about those who are beginning to forget their own lives, in order to re-teach and even re-write the memories they've lost.
Jordan Harrison’s play opens with, and keeps much of its focus on, 85 year old Marjorie – arthritic and in the early stages of dementia, cared for as best they can by her daughter Tess and son-in-law Jon. Living alone in the near-future (around 2050), most of her time alone is spent with Walter Prime, a lifelike simulation of her husband as the young man he once was. His purpose is to comfort her, remind her of what she forgets, and ensure that her life is never truly lonely.
Richard Fleeshman’s performance as Walter, the only character we only see as his Prime simulation, is believable enough that those who entered unaware of the sci-fi premise were noticeable shocked when Marjorie’s younger husband reveals himself as not being the real deal. Grudgingly doting daughter Tess, a sensational Nancy Carroll, is all hard edges and biting retorts, but gives way to clear ongoing grief with nuance and delicacy as the story progresses. Later seen as a Prime version of the character, Carroll brings a cold detachment to a newly-created AI trying to learn how to pass as a difficult and complicated human being.
Jon, Tess’s husband and Marjorie’s son-in-law, is played with a good-humoured kindness and understanding of the difficulties the two women are constantly faced with. Tony Jayawardena instils him with a growing sense of stress and doubt, as his existence as the funnier, easier partner to get along with becomes less of an asset at life’s circumstances become more dire and less able to be brightened by his apparent charm. Playing the only character we don't see as a Prime counterpart, Jayawardena takes the ample opportunity to push deeper into the role's humanity and pain as life takes its painful turns.
Perhaps the greatest performance among this small, universally strong cast is Anne Reid – a legend of a performer at 87 and still showing no signs of slowing down or diminishing abilities. As both the sometimes prickly old woman and the more demure, gently spoken Marjorie Prime, Reid carries her scenes with ease, drawing out laughter and welling up tears in equal measure. Allowing her physicality to shift between these parallel roles, she allows us first to feel Marjorie’s growing helplessness and then to serves to highlight Tess’s increasing, frantic grief. In a play where some characters are attempting to learn to emulate human nature, Anne Reid deftly demonstrates the highs and lows of being alive in this world.
Harrison’s script provides a series of slice of life pieces, leaving us to sit with the idea of how the technology being presented could alter how we view mortality and aging. With his dialogue being equally moving and laugh-inducing where called for, Harrison smartly builds the grief and pain, so that each vignette played out in Jonathan Fenson’s open plan, quickly familiar apartment set feels like both a contained, short narrative and the building blocks of an extended piece about the nature of grief in a world where technology allows us to pretend we haven't really lost someone.
Likewise, director Dominic Dromgoole intelligently asks little in terms of volume or histrionics from his actors. Movement and tone are kept natural, frustration being an underlying feeling rather than leading to outburst of rage. In a clever, thoughtful move, the Prime AI’s can be seen sat just off stage as if waiting to be called upon at several moments. This helps to reinforce the vague sense of unease created by not only their presence, but the more detached, inhuman moments of their dialogue.
A stellar play, already adapted as a critically acclaimed film, brought to life by a director with a clear and passionate understanding of the material, Marjorie Prime is a roaring success for the Menier Chocolate Factory. Boasting immaculate, rich performances across the board, and complex, important questions being asked, the show deserves to be seen by as many people as this intimate venue can sustain.
Marjorie Prime runs at the Menier Chocolate Factory until May 6th.
Tickets can be purchased at: https://www.menierchocolatefactory.com/
Photos by Manuel Harlan