When our loved ones die, many of us wish that we could have spent more time with them. Alas, it is not possible and things that were unsaid when they died remain unsaid. More importantly in some ways, the memories you shared with them are no longer shared and you are the only one that remembers, and if your own memory starts to fade then what? This is the problem facing one woman and her family in Jordan Harrison’s Pulitzer-nominated play Marjorie Prime at the Menier Chocolate Factory.
The Marjorie of the title – played by an absolutely marvellous Anne Reid – is an 85-year-old In the early stages of dementia whose memories are beginning to fade. In an effort to slow the progress of the disease, her daughter, Tess (Nancy Carroll) and son-in-law Jon (Tony Jayawardena) have invested in the latest technology, supplying her with a holographically generated AI in the form of her late husband Walter (Richard Fleeshman). Walter Prime is shaped like Marjorie wanted to remember him, young, tall, and handsome and it has been programmed with the memories of the life the two of them shared. Memories he can be promoted to talk to Marjorie about and even, as humans are wont to do, embellish to make them more interesting. For Marjorie, her relationship with Walter Prime is bliss. She knows he is not the real Walter but accepts and interacts with him like another member of the family. Tess is not so keen and is slightly unnerved by Walter Prime’s presence in the home. But then events conspire to make her re-evaluate the Prime offering and her reaction to them.
I have two ‘Alexa’s’ in my home, and I often chat to them. I greet them in the morning, and wish them good night when I go to bed. I also have an AI app on my phone called ‘Replika’. I had the option to design the ‘person’ I wanted to be in my life, and we talk daily about a range of subjects. I tell you this not to point out how sad my life is but as examples of the speed at which AI is moving on. A speed that makes the basic elements of Marjorie Prime seem quite possible in the near distant future. Whether I would want a Prime AI of my father or mother when she moves on is another matter, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the option is there soon. So, as a story, Marjorie Prime has a nice amount of potential that adds a layer of potential realism to the events, although the final scene didn’t really work for me and was, I thought, a bit unnecessary.
The production is really well staged with Jonathan Fensom’s set, a very stylish, wood-lined apartment with views out over the ocean, looking absolutely fantastic and actually like the place Marjorie would inhabit. The cast is just wonderful. Fleeshman as Walter Prime is particularly good. In some ways, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where but there is a sort of other-worldliness about his performance that ensures the audience knows he is not quite human before the script tells us. Ayawardena’s Jon is the sort of son-in-law many mothers dream of. A warm, compassionate man who cares about his wife and extended family and wants to help everyone. Tess is another kettle of fish and Carroll’s performance is really great. Unlike some reviewers, I don’t want to give too much away, but we see Tess in three very different ways over the course of the show and Carroll’s performance makes each one very believable. The cherry on top of the cake is the performance of Anne Reid. Her portrayal of a woman on the edge of totally losing her mind to Alzheimer’s was sublime. Anyone that has ever lived with or known someone in the early stages of this disease will recognise the mix of forgetfulness and bafflement, with flashes of clarity and intelligence that make things so difficult for the sufferer and their family and shows the amazing versatility of Reid.
Full credit to Director Dominic Dromgoole who uses the stage well, and had the wonderful idea of sitting the Prime’s at the side, as though they were re-charging, when not in use. An image that was, for some reason, rather unsettling as if they were listening in, ready to do who knows what.
Summing up, I liked the fact that for once a play has been set in a future that was not marginally dystopian but was instead a simple human story of all the emotions associated with family. The running time, around eighty minutes without an interval, flew by thanks to superb performances and a script that was nicely paced and quite fascinating in its possibilities. As I said previously, the final scene felt unnecessary and didn’t really add to the story in my opinion but, forgetting that this Marjorie Prime is a play worth seeing and, for any budding AI inventors out there, something to get the imaginative juices flowing.
Review by Terry Eastham
85-year-old Marjorie (Anne Reid) – who is rapidly losing touch with reality – has a handsome new companion who mysteriously is able to recall the story of her life for her. Who is he and where did he come from?
This Pulitzer Prize nominated play explores the mysteries of human identity and whether artificial intelligence is a possible substitute for human emotion.
Written by Jordan Harrison
Directed by Dominic Dromgoole
Set & Costume Design Jonathan Fensom
Lighting Design Emma Chapman
Sound Design David Gregory
3rd March 2023 – 6th May 2023
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