Review by Harry Bower
At the fictional Harrogate University, a visiting professor arrives. Helen Reed is a creative writing expert and novelist, and recent widow, arriving in the rain ready to begin the new semester. Across the campus in the shiny, out of place Cognitive Science building, stands Ralph Messenger, frantically relaying his thoughts into a voice recorder to mark the launch of a new experiment. Messenger wants to understand the essence of thought and the nature of consciousness. He spends his days dreaming of Nobel prizes and immortality through achievement and reputation. Reed spends her days grieving from the loss of her husband, who died suddenly, and writing intense personal reflection in her journal. As the paths of these two intellectuals converge, Secret Thoughts explores the likelihood of consciousness in artificial intelligence (AI), and spends a surprising amount of time discussing what happens to us when we die.
As Reed and Messenger meet for the first time, the audience watch them slowly fall for each other. In a series of lectures, diaries, and social events. The pair bounce ideas off each other, tackling life after death, loss, consciousness, technology, and philosophy, in a passive-aggressive way reserved for those who know they are right but want to give the impression that they’re listening to other viewpoints. The writing is at times too reliant on the power dynamic between headstrong and confident Messenger, and a somewhat weakened and submissive Reed. To its credit, this lulls the audience into believing Messenger has the upper hand – until his opposite delivers her keynote ‘final word’ speech at the end of year conference and knocks it out of the park. That single scene is by far the best piece of writing in the play, making points about the value of art and creativity in the identity of ‘self’ – and the importance that this is not lost when considering a technology-driven future.
The show begins at the end of these two characters’ journeys, and ends at the beginning, in a standard but effective mechanic by which each scene fills in some blanks for the audience. This format is designed to keep us engaged, and given the fast-paced writing, it works wonders, though it sometimes takes more than the first line of dialogue to realise which version of the couple’s relationship we are seeing. There is an attempt to get over this by inserting some odd physical theatre into the transitions, the two actors’ bodies intertwining to a techno soundtrack and moody lighting effects. The soundtrack is excellent, akin to a video game loading screen (a compliment). Unfortunately for me this movement didn’t add anything meaningful to my understanding of the characters’ relationship nor the direction or interpretation of the plot. Instead, I felt as though it sapped momentum and led to a disconnect, jolting me from the plot and distracting me from my focus.
For me it’s the characters in Secret Thoughts which are most frustrating. Messenger is sex-obsessed for reasons that are not really explained (other than that he’s a man), and spouts ‘deep’ meaningless questions. He is frustratingly obtuse in his views. That would be fine if he were presented with any opinion which threatened those views or was equally extreme, but Reed is not written to be his worthy opposite. She is much more neutral and easily swayed or unsure. You might suggest Reed represents most people, able to understand both sides of an argument, and accepting that they may be wrong or less educated on certain topics. Again, that’s fine – but it means Messenger is the dominant voice in the relationship and Reed’s focus on creative arts, writing, and ‘self’, is somewhat lost. That doesn’t present as balanced an argument in terms of consciousness and AI as the writers presumably hoped it might have done. It feels as though the piece would benefit hugely from being a triple hander, introducing a third character for some balance. There are moments which feel sinister, particularly in soundtrack and those physical theatre scenes, though nothing significant beyond the reading of a private journal materialises. If the message is that this is the most sinister act of all, invading personal thought, then this is somewhat lost on the audience.
There are emotional threads of grief and mortality woven into the fabric of the narrative which provide some beautiful moments of introspection, and an insight to the dark side of consciousness which is also welcome. The play touches on privacy, fair exchange of intellectualism, the foundation of empathy and feeling which those in artificial intelligence are today trying to impart unto AI systems and robotics. They’re all absolutely the right questions and topics to be tackling in a show related to AI, and though nobody truly has the right answers in 2023, the play frames them in the right way which is thought-provoking and fun to watch. The editorialisation of thought and how privacy impacts our ability to be honest was a fascinating strand, and one which could be expanded upon.
In my research I found that this show is an adaptation of a book, Thinks, by David Loges. I’ve not read it, but knowing this suddenly makes me feel a bit clearer about why the characters in Secret Thoughts, to me, feel underdeveloped. It’s as though they’ve been flexed to suit new themes, but now they don’t quite fit with one another, and the new narrative. One of the most striking quotes in the piece references human evolution and the lack of understanding about why humans cry. “Crying is a puzzler”, goes the quote. Well, so is Secret Thoughts. There’s something here, but it feels as though the final piece of the puzzle is locked away somewhere, kept secret from the audience.
Secret Thoughts is playing at Omnibus Theatre until 09 July 2023 as part of their first ever AI Festival. For more information and tickets visit: https://www.omnibus-clapham.org/secret-thoughts/
Photos by Alicia Bridge / Bridge Portraits