Marjorie Prime

Jordan Harrison
Menier Chocolate Factory

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Anne Reid, Richard Fleeshman, Nancy Carroll and Tony Jayawardena in Marjorie Prime Credit: Manuel Harlan
Richard Fleeshman and Anne Reid in Marjorie Prime Credit: Manuel Harlan
Tony Jayawardena and Nancy Carroll in Marjorie Prime Credit: Manuel Harlan
Richard Fleeshman and Anne Reid in Marjorie Prime Credit: Manuel Harlan
Nancy Carroll and Anne Reid in Marjorie Prime Credit: Manuel Harlan
Nancy Carroll and Tony Jayawardena in Marjorie Prime Credit: Manuel Harlan

Prime—would does that word mean—in the prime of life, prime numbers? In Jordan Harrison’s Pulitzer-nominated 2014 play, made into a sci-fi film in 2017, it’s about mortality, old age, memory, and what remains of us when we’re gone.

And AI, artificial intelligence—AI avatars called Primes, who are recreations of our dear departed. It couldn't be more prescient in our algorithmic times and big corporations.

It’s not a new idea: many films, television series and books have explored this territory. Nevertheless, Marjorie Prime (there’s a clue) captivates with its subtle cleverness. You need to be on your toes to see swift changes, listen attentively. Watch facial expressions and shifts in voice tones.

The cast is superb, the acting nuanced, the direction delicate. Eighty minutes of talk was never so captivating. Think Chinese whispers. Stories develop and change. Can we ever really know the truth? What is truth?

Widowed Marjorie in her eighties dotage, forgetful, lonely, has a Prime, a young version of husband Walter, who nudges her memories. Daughter Tess and her husband Jon have fed him her life story. But how much of it do they really know?

How much is fairy tale? Who bought the dog? Not Tess. Who loved him most? There’s a piece of the jigsaw missing. Walter supplies it at the end, but where did he get it—from Jon?

How well do any of us know our family, parents or siblings? Siblings often have contradictory memories of their home lives. We are all unreliable narrators. Jon (Tony Jayawardena sympathetic if inscrutable in his underdeveloped role) makes notes for later use—“better be careful what I say” says Marjorie—but he’s an incomer to the family as son-in-law. Is history being rewritten?

“Tell me about myself”, says Marjorie. Later Tess will say the same—“tell me more about myself”. Tess complains that she was loved less than her brother Damien. He’s been airbrushed out of the narrative till the end.

“I’m afraid I don't have that information”, says the programmed Walter. Tess will say that, too, later. Are they all replicants? When did they transition from human to robot? As I say, watch and listen closely. Richard Fleeshman gives very little away in a terrific still performance. A real doll, as they say.

Anne Reid’s face is a screen of confused emotions at the beginning till it isn’t. “Are we close?" she asks. Dementia or not enough information? Throwaway lines—Tess says, “I’m talking to my dead mother,” when a minute ago she was taking her to the bathroom.

Nancy Carroll face is pained, she is stressed with care, and the past hurts, then her face is bestilled, calm. Walter Prime sits discreetly at the side; later Marjorie will stand in a dark alcove—AIs parked in the cupboards, so to speak.

How do we know any of us are real? The play ends with three Primes, Walter, Marjorie and Tess talking about the film Casablanca. As earlier Tess had talked of Madagascar. Much doesn't make sense, but that’s life.

Three Primes against a starry blue sky—are they sitting in a replica of Marjorie’s home? Are they on another planet? I think of Tarkovksy’s films, namely his 1972 Solaris. Maybe it’s time to revisit them.

Writing and acting may be undemonstrative, Dominic Dromgoole direction, too, but Marjorie Prime has great resonance. Jonathan Fensom’s economic set and costumes are just so. Sound (and silence) by David Gregory underpins the action, whilst Emma Chapman’s lighting marks the changing of the days.

Naturally, as in life, there are platitudes: “how nice that we could love somebody”. Larkin’s Arundel Tomb comes to mind—if only it were true.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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