There are shows that require a generous amount of suspension of disbelief. To a certain extent, The Test is one of them, insofar as it considers a form of what I will call Artificial Intelligence 2.0. It’s a sign of how similar so many modern workplaces look that it is impossible, at least for me, to tell what sort of office this is and in what sort of industry, purely by looking at the set before the show started.
Dora (Natasha Killam) works in some sort of research facility – one of the very, very few ambiguous points in this intense production – under the supervision of someone known only as The Professor (Zara Banks). The Professor comes across at first as a bit of a traditionalist, and over-cautious, as though she were warning Dora not to get into a car because she might crash. She really might, you know, because road traffic accidents happen every single day.
As with many scientific experiments, there are considerations of the ethics involved, and the opening scene proved to be an interesting, if rather academic, discussion about whether it is morally right for Dora to proceed even if she has the necessary financial backing from unspecified ‘sponsors’. Dora appears to win the debate, with an assertion that neither The Professor nor anyone else can “hold back the march of progress”.
The pair are somewhat caricatured. In my own experience of the world of academia (I worked in university administration years ago), professors tend to be able to see things from various perspectives even if they do hold strong personal convictions, and I would have expected a real-life discussion to be rather more nuanced than this one. But then this is sci-fi drama, so almost anything goes.
Josh (Duncan Mason) responds to an advert put out by Dora, and it turns out his services are required to write a computer programme that will allow Dora to carry out the experiment, or ‘the test’ (geddit?) that she believes could potentially be of significant benefit to the world at large. The proposed methodology of the test has been thought through thoroughly, and it is possible to be almost blinded by the science, or rather the science fiction, involved. It’s far from ‘death-by-PowerPoint’, but the conversation between Dora and Josh occasionally comes across as an academic tutorial. In short, as Josh wryly remarks, “You scientists do love your stupid acronyms”.
I can only admire Natasha Killam for remembering all of the specific points necessary. It is, of course, part of an actor’s job to learn lines, but when so much information is being disseminated at breakneck speed, I thought of Gordon Brown when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer rattling through numbers and statistics in his Budget Statements. At least his ‘script’ was directly in front of him.
Dora’s dogged determination doesn’t end well. In her inability to see the wood for the trees, she becomes over-reliant on technological processes. It’s dramatized in a way that was borderline comical – not altogether a bad thing, given the increasingly dark narrative. A large number of topics come under discussion, making the script and the play appear a tad unfocused. ‘Mother’ (also Zara Banks – the inverted commas appearing in the cast list because she isn’t actually Dora’s mum), is allowed to talk for too long, and as a modern American phrase puts it, nobody likes a smart-ass.
There are elements of brilliance in the play, particularly in the plot twists. It is, however, quite hard going. It did leave me wondering, on the other hand, how far the technological world is from feasibly getting to the stage demonstrated in this curious production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
A reckless scientist and a computer hacker join forces to hijack the entire internet in an attempt to create the first truly conscious artificial intelligence. They apply the ‘Turing Test’ to assess their creation but who is really being tested? Who will gain the upper hand? The future of humanity hangs in the balance…
Written and Directed by Ian Dixon Potter
Performed by Natasha Killam, Duncan Mason & Zara Banks
Sound & Light by Janet A Cantrill
19th – 30th September 2017
White Bear theatre
138 Kennington Park Road
London SE11 4DJ