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Marjorie Prime
Photo by Lisa Tomasetti

The Ensemble Theatre presents, MARJORIE PRIME, by Jordan Harrison, at the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli. 15th June – 21st July.

MARJORIE PRIME, is an American play, by Jordan Harrison, that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2015.

The play is set in this mid-twenty-first century. Tess (Lucy Bell) is caring for her ageing and deteriorating mother Marjorie (Maggie Dence). She is beginning to experience a creeping dementia. Jon (Richard Sydenham), Tess’ husband, has organised from a Robot Company, a Prime. A Prime is a fully personalised life-look-alike.

They have created for Marjorie, Walter Prime (Jake Speer), her husband, who looks like he did when he was thirty and has been fed memories to be able to converse with Marjorie for comfort’s sake. It is a very unsettling concept and leads to not always lucid or truthful conversations – after all Walter Prime can only speak what he has been ‘fed’ – other people’s memories and needs, the Rashomon affect of truth is on full display. We all have variants of what is the truth.

Marjorie dies and Tess is given a Prime called Marjorie. This Marjorie Prime has been fed the detailed memories that Tess needs her to have so that she can say things she had never said in human life to her mother – for instance, that she had loved her.

Tess dies and Jon has a Prime called Tess commissioned.

All three Primes spend some time together and re-gurgitate what their information bank has been given. The cross conversations are idealised versions of the past – and not always congruent.

This play is less about the development of Artificial Intelligence and its possible flaws (though, of interest) and more concerned with the anxiety of loss of consciousness and the inevitable experience of death. It dwells in the world of grief and regret. Of guilt. Of secrets kept invisible, stored in a Pandora’s Box to facilitate amnesia of events that all have found distressing, traumatic. Loss of love. Lack of love. Suicide, for instance.

On a beautiful Set Design, by Simon Greer, that looks like a gentle projection of order and efficiency in the ordinary home, of the near future, gloriously assisted by the futuristic possibilities of a Lighting Design for modern living by Alex Berlage, Director, Mitchell Butel has staged the production with care and crafted with Composer, Max Lyandvert, an intriguing accompanying score that creates an atmosphere that in its comfort is a sensitive contrast to the off-kilter happenings of the play.

Ms Bell’s neurotic and ‘injured’ Tess is lightly balanced by the very sensitive reading of Jon, by Mr Sydenham. Jake Speer has the looks of an idealised partner and handles the physical life of this Robot/Prime with subtle details. Ms Dence has created a Marjorie that just avoids cliche but not entirely owned.

This is a gently provoking (creepy) play that indicates our projected, selective memories maybe our best acts of love. A love to protect ourselves in the lonely experience of journeying closely to the end and needing to be loved back – remembered well. How lucky it would be, if we all were. These imagined Science Fiction Primes just might facilitate that luxury and romantic escape! Or, not.

P.S. There is a film version with Jon Hamm and Lois Smith (2017).