Writer: Jordan Harrison
Director: Dominic Dromgoole
Are humans more than a collection of stories and can you essentially clone consciousness? It is a question that runs through Jordan Harrison’s one act play from 2014, Marjorie Prime, receiving a new revival at the Menier Chocolate Factory. This exploration of family, identity and grief is an interesting discussion about how technology can keep the dead alive and the extent to which individual memory can become a collective expression of self in another ‘living’ being.
Marjorie is starting to lose her memory and decides to obtain a ‘prime’ to talk to in the guise of her late husband Walter as the young man she fell for. Feeding her memories to Walter Prime he begins to take on the dead man’s personality, providing comfort to Marjorie as she waits for her own end to come. But her daughter Tess is less convinced by the strange entity wearing a face her father owned long before she existed.
Harrison’s play is a piece which takes its characters through three cycles of grief, death and connection to understand the ways in which we not only construct identities for ourselves and others but give certain memories weighted meanings. For Marjorie, whose memory is failing, this means a romanticised version of her deceased husband who becomes a flawless copy of a man who probably never existed in the form that she is now remembering him decades later. Harrison’s avatar is hungry for knowledge wanting to be ‘told’ who to be so he can function better, which makes the discussion about what makes us human all the more interesting.
In doing so Marjorie Prime also considers the alternative trajectory using Marjorie’s memory loss to consider how humanity is stripped away by age, losing connection to the world around her and leading Tess’ husband to note “how much does she need to forget before she’s not your mom anymore?” Is Walter Prime any less human than Marjorie even though he remembers and she cannot?
Harrison’s play needs more time to develop these ideas though and Dominic Dromgoole’s revival prioritises perfect domesticity in a naturalistic lounge-room set – beautifully designed by Jonathan Fensom – but occasionally the strangeness of the AI and its proximity to grief gets a little lost in the drama of sandwich-making or worrying about teenagers joining bands instead of getting proper jobs. Like Caryl Churchill’s cloning piece A Number, how much stronger could this be in a more representative space where science and the limited lifespan of human bodies, if not their memories ,could come together.
Performances are excellent, however, particularly Anne Reid as Marjorie who flits effortlessly between wistful remembrances of her own colourful youth, the painful present and the forgetfulness merging into complete memory loss to come. Reid captures all the hope, sadness, disappointment and desperation of wanting to connect again but not finding Walter quite the man he needs to be. Nancy Carroll is equally excellent as troubled daughter Tess, trying to reconcile a distanced relationship with her mother while exploring her own experiences of loss and self-denial throughout the play.
There is strong support from Tony Jayawardena as husband Jon and Richard Fleeshman as the eerily smooth robot Walter and it is the bland, calm, happiness of the avatar that makes Harrison’s thoughts on the emotional placidity of faux humans worth a longer discussion than the 75-minutes it gets here.
Runs until 6 May 2023