Love them or loathe them, for many of us, an Alexa has become an everyday companion, providing snippets of useful information, or carrying out automated tasks. But artificial intelligence is developing at a rapid pace, and innovations like Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse give us a glimpse of the future. So too does Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime, currently running at the Menier Chocolate Factory under the direction of Dominic Dromgoole.
But this isn’t the distant future, it’s set a mere forty odd years from the present day. The Alexa has been replaced with Primes, AI machines that take human form, and not just any human, someone that you specify.
Eighty-five year old Marjorie has dementia, and her Prime is presented as a sort of medical aid. Looking like her late husband when he was in his thirties, Walter Prime spends his days reminding Marjorie of all the things that happened in her life that she can no longer remember. Whether these are real memories or not is up for debate; all of the information has been fed to Walter Prime by Marjorie, her daughter Tess, and son-in-law Jon.
It’s not long before the title of the play makes sense, as Tess (Nancy Carroll) tries to reconnect with her mother and create a bond that perhaps never existed in real life. Tess is sceptical of the technology, and it falls to Jon (Tony Jayawardena) to be the future facing one, only to find himself later disappointed, “I’m only talking to myself” he says as his new Prime fails to exhibit the behaviours of its human counterpart.
Harrison’s script is wonderfully funny, particularly in the earlier scenes between Marjorie and Walter. Richard Fleeshman nails the role of Walter Prime, somehow managing to convey the sense that the character is not flesh and blood, retreating to the side of the stage when not required, as if being stored in the airing cupboard.
The story moves quickly, perhaps to the detriment of the point it’s trying to make. We never really get the chance to identify with Anne Reid’s heartfelt portrayal of Marjorie, though watching Reid portray the Prime version of the character is ultimately rewarding.
Jonathan Fensom’s set feels both futuristic and old-fashioned at the same time; in the same way your eighty-five-year-old Aunt might still possess some furniture from days gone by, it’s easy to admire Marjorie’s trendy beach front home, while imagining the next door neighbours are even trendier.
Marjorie Prime definitely leaves its audience wanting more; extra time to explore the characters in more detail would have made the chilling conclusion even more thought-provoking. It feels as if the play has been written in response to the recent release of ChatGPT, but it was actually first performed almost a decade ago, which explains some of the older references, but demonstrates just how prescient Harrison’s writing is.
Asking your Alexa for the weather forecast seems like a far cry from the world that Marjorie Prime portrays, and yet the point that Harrison makes so eloquently is that it’s not. This one-act play is both an amusing and blistering view of a future that many of us will still be around to witness, and really questions whether artificial intelligence can ever truly replace human interaction.