Marjorie Prime, Menier Chocolate Factory, review: This AI play has astonishing scope
Majorie Prime review and star rating: ★★★★
I wasn’t sure what to make of Jordan Harrison’s memory play, Marjorie Prime, at first. It’s almost oppressively sad, and at times, feels like it lacks a story. But it has lingered in my mind far longer than anything else I’ve seen this year.
Everyone’s here to see the astonishing Anne Reid, who at 87 is way more chipper in the bar after the show than the 85-year-old character she plays on stage. She plays Marjorie, who has dementia that’s got so bad she wets herself. She lives a comfortable middle class existence alongside her daughter Tess, who boils with anger at frustration at her mother over past trauma they never settled. Marjorie’s comforted by an AI version of her late husband, Walter, who tells her stories from her past and reminds of how good things were.
Cut from the cloth of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Harrison’s play has astonishing scope, the sort of scope Williams achieved almost 80 years ago with his play examining the internal dialogues of a repressed housewife clinging to the past. Harrison’s vehicle is artificial intelligence and what it could offer us. Could we find solace by recreating loved ones after they pass? It is a question that only grows in pertinence the closer we get to the reality of those people existing. Arguably we’re already there: robots can manage conversations with humans already, hello Chat GPT, and the relevance adds inherent drama. If this play were written even ten years ago, coding a dead person would fall into the realm of fantasy.
Dominic Dromgoole creates magic with Harrison’s text, showing how the codes, patterns and movements of human behaviour might be interpreted by machines. Fleeshman is particularly good at being dead and charming at once, moving his head so softly you could be convinced it was algorithmically controlled. Reid, who began her career 13 years after Menagerie premiered in 1944, shows off the great range of older life, from mentally robust ball-busting grandma to the material reality of incontinence. Tony Jayawardena is particularly good as Jon, the exasperated husband who watches his in-laws wilt. There’s a particularly haunting scene at the end showing the logical extension of AI that stays with you.
I’m still not sure if Harrison’s play needs a stronger story arc so that the pace keeps up with the very thrilling idea at its heart. But I am sure that Majorie Prime is an astonishingly contemporary memory play with more longevity than any one life. I’m not sure whether AI can make theatre, but this theatre about AI has found new urgency.
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Marjorie Prime plays at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 6 May