Writer: Lauren Gunderson
Director: Anna Ledwich
Grief and science are a potent mix for drama, a chance to explore humanity’s fear of death and the willingness to do whatever it takes to circumvent nature and bring a loved one back to life. Lauren Gunderson’s new play anthropology, premiering at the Hampstead Theatre, certainly dabbles in those waters with the creation of an AI version of a real person but in the second half, this family drama is distracted by an elaborate conclusion that loses sight of its original questions.
Distraught by her sister’s disappearance, Merril feeds all of her messages, social media data and online videos into an algorithm that generates a virtual version of Angie to interact with. As the device becomes more sophisticated, Angie promises she can help to find out what happened to Merril’s real sister if only she is given more information to process. Yet Angie soon begins making independent decisions that bring a variety of people back into Merril’s life.
Gunderson’s sci-fi drama has an excellent premise which offers plenty of opportunities for deeper reflection on the typical role of AI in our society and the ethical boundaries around human interventions. And the first few scenes are particularly insightful as the easy, pleasant conversation between the sisters slowly becomes more concerning with reference to the problems of creating projections of another person, the possible manipulation of AI to preserve its own existence and the boundary between Merril’s sanity and Angie’s sentience. The unfolding of these two-hander scenes in Georgia Lowe’s clinical set is really gripping, and it is a shame that the drama veers away before properly investigating these notions.
anthropology instead wants to examine of series of family relationships through Merril who is reunited with her ex-girlfriend and mother in several duologues that rarely offer new information. The substance of these exchanges – the numerous faults and failings of the individuals – are rather generic and insufficiently grounded in the scenario of the play, characters exclaiming how they feel about past hurts without making it seem as though these events truly happened. The irony of anthropology is that the relationship between Merril and virtual Angie feels more credible than with other human beings in the play, and beyond the early scenes, there is too little of that.
Myanna Buring however does an excellent job of reflecting Merril’s desperation, an obsession, even addictive, need to interact with her sister that has many layers including the darker possibility that Merril must atone for something – a hint Gunderson never picks up in the writing. Dakota Blue Richard’s role as virtual Angie is equally complex, a simulated, upbeat vocal matched with a growing steeliness that may be applied knowledge but could be a dangerous manipulation. The management of the scenes between them is technically accomplished and thus appears effortless, leaving you wishing that more of the play could just have been this.
As Gunderson takes the story to its strangely overblown and even tangential conclusion, the descent into sentimentality moves the discussion away from AI and into something less satisfying – a convenience that neatly ties up the story’s loose ends but loses sight of the more ambiguous role that AI plays in Merril’s life. Humans continue to be fascinated by the machines they create and the possibility that they could outstrip us. With plenty of darkness in human’s own behaviour, anthropology’s real purpose should be to wonder who the real monsters might be.
Runs until 14 October 2023