Photos – Lisa Tomasetti
Marjorie (Maggie Dence) is in her eighties, physically infirm, and well on her way to dementia. As often as her daughter Tess (Lucy Bell) visits and tends to her, despite their lifelong fraught relationship, aged care is a full-time job. Hired carers are no substitute for the interaction of family, so Tess’ husband Jon (Richard Sydenham) decides to try something different to help Marjorie through her declining years. He resurrects her long-dead husband Walter.
Here in the not so distant future, technology exists whereby the grieving and elderly can gain companionship from an artificially intelligent hologram, rendered in the image of their departed loved one. Known as “Primes”, these digital simulacra are like manifestations of Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa, taken to the next level of interactivity and personalisation. The holograms look and sound like your departed relative, but are initially somewhat blank slates, designed to learn and retell what they are taught about the dead people whom they are created to emulate. Thus, the more you talk and the more information about “themselves” you feed them, the more notionally accurate and lifelike a representation of that person they become.
Of course, the catch-22 of this technology is that they are compliant virtual servants who only really know what you tell them, and thus will act as if they “remember” potentially inaccurate information, and relay it with a convincingly emotional degree of earnest and heartfelt recollection. Playwright Jordan Harrison does not get bogged down in much exposition regarding the science fiction “world-building” behind his play’s core conceit, so we never really learn whether this is a product designed primarily for keeping widowed elderly people company, as a therapy device for bereft clientele of any age, or both.
Marjorie has chosen to have “Walter Prime” (Jake Speer) resemble the way her husband looked forty years or so prior, a fact which unsettles Tess, but Jon is adamant that the computerised companion is doing the old lady good. And indeed, Walter Prime is endlessly patient, kind, consoling, flattering and accommodating. It entertains Marjorie by recounting stories it has been fed of their lives together, about the World Number 8 tennis pro who was a rival suitor, the movie they saw the night that Walter asked her to marry him, or the beloved black poodle they got from the pound when their children were young.
When Marjorie misremembers something, however, like the fact that her would-be beau was actually only a tennis amateur, that they owned two identical poodles in succession both named Toni and can no longer accurately attribute which memories to which dog, or even that she willfully prefers to think that they saw a classic movie like Casablanca instead of My Best Friend’s Wedding on the night he proposed… Walter Prime simply takes these errors as gospel and recounts them to her that way. This repetition serves to cement the misinformation in her own mind, as the dementia worsens. More unsettling still, Walter Prime is completely unaware that “his daughter” Tess is not an only child, because decades of grief has made Marjorie silent on the topic of their absent son’s tragic fate. Since her simulated husband has never been given this information, Walter Prime blithely proceeds as if this troubled son never existed.
Cannily directed by Mitchell Butel, this superb cast conveys a great deal of nuance in their portrayal of the differences between real and simulated human behaviour, delivering richly resonant and emotionally devastating performances. This is a play touching upon many thorny topics, concerning family dynamics, the trauma of getting old and losing one’s memories and mental function, and conversely of how that loss of identity and shared history is a trauma in turn for adult offspring tending to their declining mothers and fathers.
Aged care, parental loss and especially dealing with dementia seem to have become prevalent topics on stage and screen in the last decade or so, as new generations of writers evidently find themselves dealing with and expressing these once taboo issues concerning the increasingly common reality of our aging population. An impending “aged care crisis” has been touted in the media for some time, as the encroaching senescence of the Baby Boomer generation and the perpetual increase in life expectancy are poised to collide as a major social concern looming on the horizon for Generation X and Millennials.
This is also a play about loss and grief more generally, and without necessarily falling into the default mode of Western sci-fi’s alarmist technophobia, it does ask some probing questions about the emotional limits and even ethics of how we relate to increasingly “intelligent” and intuitive computers. This is especially so when these interactive technologies start to take on increasingly humanistic interfaces, and hungrily gobble up our personal information to, at least in principle, better serve us.
Although it must be said that Marjorie Prime is strikingly similar in conception to a noteworthy early episode of the acclaimed anthology sci-fi television series Black Mirror (which predated it), a great strength of Harrison’s work lies in extrapolating this initial premise of his play and throwing in some curveballs, to the point where the legacy of Jon’s decision to create a Prime for his mother-in-law has far-reaching consequences for this intimate family saga. The finale of the play approaches moments of subtle existential terror, as the iterative and recursive nature of this almost self-aware companionship technology is laid bare. It is an ambiguous scene that could be read as either merely the result of user abandonment, or possibly even implying a darker, post-human world, pondering what happens to all this artificial intelligence and the personal information we have fed into it when we too are gone.
It is difficult to fully convey the emotional impact of the play without giving away significant aspects of the plot, which are surprises much better experienced as they unfold. For anyone who has dealt with the deterioration of a parental figure, worked as a carer, or experienced the grief of a losing a loved one and found themselves wishing they could still talk to them after they are gone, this is a deeply affecting, hopefully cathartic, but potentially harrowing night at the theatre. While suffused with many moments of keen humour and beautifully written dialogue, have no illusions of seeking light entertainment – this is an intellectually stimulating, emotional gut-punch of a play. Highly recommended, but not for the faint of heart.
Ensemble Theatre presents
by Jordan Harrison
Director Mitchell Butel
Venue: Ensemble Theatre | 78 McDougall St, Kirribilli, NSW
Dates: 15 June – 21 July 2018
Tickets: $43 – $73
Bookings: 02 9929 0644 | www.ensemble.com.au