You will spot the plot twists coming a mile away in Jordan Harrison’s play about artificial intelligence. A clichéd family tragedy looms in the memories of Marjorie, the elderly woman at the centre of his story. As her daughter and son-in-law fret over the experimental technology they’ve purchased to help Marjorie in the home, their bickering too often leans under Dominic Dromgoole’s direction into hyperbolic rhythms and portentous silences.
Yet despite this slew of reasons to reject it, there’s a cerebral dexterity and humane lightness that can’t help but make this play a success. Stick with it and you’ll understand why it won Harrison a Pulitzer nomination in 2015. Slowly, Marjorie Prime inveigles the mind.
Harrison gives us a credible vision of the 2060s. An upper-middle class American family face the same challenges as their 2023 counterparts, with a slight upgrade in technology. Tess, a self-styled “West Coast Wasp” in her mid-fifties, is breaking under the strain of caring for an elderly mother at home and launching her own children into the workforce. The demographic problem sometimes termed “the sandwich generation” hasn’t been solved.
But technology has given Tess one new option: a holographic companion for Marjorie whose chat promises to keep her memories sharp and her attention diverted from Tess’s domestic failings. Like all such robots, Marjorie’s carer is designed to resemble a deceased loved one – Tess’ dead father Walter. Powered by AI, he absorbs and refines himself according to the family’s memories of Walter. At least, the memories they choose to share with him.
Two factors give this production lift off, despite its clunky building blocks. Firstly, former Globe director Dromgoole has assembled a top-tier cast. Nancy Carroll gives a blistering performance as Tess – if she was still feeling the effects of the laryngitis which forced her to cancel three previews, there was no sign of it in this energetic and committed performance. Anne Reid is a placidly infuriating Marjorie, blithely unaware of her daughter’s efforts. Her exchanges with Carroll pinpoint the capacity of mother-daughter relationships for mutually affectionate cruelty.
Tony Jayawardena – who impressed last year in Inua Ellam’s Antigone and the National’s Gandi play The Father and the Assassin – is sympathetic as Tess’ devoted husband, desperately keeping the peace. Richard Fleeshman, better known for his work in musical theatre, makes up the cast as “Walter Prime”, in an uncanny performance that suggests proper research into just how AI mimics our minds. We watch him learn in real time to be the person Marjorie wants him to be.
The second factor is Harrison’s ability to layer ideas upon ideas so gradually that we don’t realise how many intellectual questions we’re absorbing. This is a play about how memory shapes our sense of self; about the costs of love; about our hold over our children – and yes, about artificial intelligence. In the age of ChatGPT, we’re bound to see more plays about AI. Harrison sets out the parameters of a new genre boldly and brightly.