In recent years, something of a sci-fi sub-genre has emerged with TV shows like HBO’s epic Westworld, BBC’s Humans, and the 2013 film Her. Artificial Intelligence, specifically AI designed to mimic humans, is a subject that compels and terrifies us in equal measure. Luke Culloty’s Artificial taps into these contemporary concerns, although for all the references to new technology, the overriding theme is one which has plagued humanity through the ages: isolation and the failure to connect with others.
Dom is the main character of the play and, incidentally, is played by Culloty, who also directs. The basis of Dom is that he is our narrative centrepoint. The problem, then, is that he is also something of a non-character. He is defined by what he is not: fun, social, talkative, happy. His personality can be summed up by the line: “It’s kinda my thing, not liking coffee.” The bleakness of his life does convey one of the play’s key messages about the loss of human connection in a digital age; it is interesting that the AI he created for himself, Kurtis, has more of a personality than he does and it throws up many questions about the boundary between human and machine, particularly due to the detached nature of Dom’s job. However, it makes it awfully hard to care about the character and to engage with his narrative. It is largely inconceivable that all but one of the play’s women have had or still hold romantic interest in him. Culloty has written a promising script but, on stage, comic timing and stage presence were regrettably scarce.
In contrast, Emily Cundick’s performance as Dennis stood out for all the right reasons. She brought bundles of energy and impeccable comic timing to the character, whose consistent state of semi-nakedness and overfriendly chatter were an abundant source of humour. What was most impressive was the nuance that Cundick achieved, managing to balance the comedy against a more serious background narrative. Given that Dennis’ girlfriend, ‘Daisy’, only featured in dialogue, it is telling of Cundick’s talent (though perhaps also a flaw of the script) that this is the most compelling relationship the play presents. “Pool tables don’t cry, Dom”, proclaims Dennis: both a fantastic punchline but also a bittersweet insight into the anxieties and the uncertainties of becoming (or not becoming) a parent.
Fred Woodley’s voiceover as AI Kurtis also brought many laughs, whilst Maja Laskowska’s Eva was convincing but rather one-note, lacking character development. It felt like the AI was an afterthought at times, with the focus being more heavily weighted towards human relationships (and lack thereof). Only at the end did the emphasis firmly rest on the ethics of designing AI to be as human as possible, by which point it was a little late to engender a strong emotional reaction or a complex philosophical discussion.
For a play about technology, the sound and lighting design was disappointingly clumsy. Whilst the abrupt and jerky musical interludes may have been a stylistic decision – after all, it is a play about disconnection – it gave the show an amateur feel and the sound was often too loud, making it difficult to understand some of the AI dialogue in the beginning. There’s nothing wrong with simplistic lighting, however, the attempts to inspire sympathy by lowering the lights during ‘emotional moments’ often felt heavy-handed and cliché. Given the black box environment and the sci-fi premise of the piece, I’d hoped for some more inventive effects to really give that futuristic vibe. The small lit-up orbs used to represent the AI were an innovative step towards this, and their colourful glow was highly effective when held up so as to reflect onto the actors’ faces: I just wanted more of it.
In many ways, this sums up my feelings about the show as a whole: I wanted more from the cast and crew. The potential is there in the script and, I believe, in the actors. Split Note Theatre are, by their own admission, a young company that wants to grow and learn. I admire their desire to develop and their openness to criticism and feedback from audience and reviewers alike (they invited comments at the end of the performance) – it bodes well for their future. I am interested to see how the show develops and changes between now and the Edinburgh Fringe. The script, the willingness to learn, and some budding new talent are all there, it is just in need of a reboot before it can pass this Turing test.
New Reviewer, Claudia Graham, forms part of our new London team.