Writer and Director: Jon Welch
Reviewer: Joan Phillips
Spillikin catches perfectly the cultural and scientific zeitgeist on two fronts. Firstly, how we help the increasing numbers of people affected by dementia in our community. Secondly, what role Artificial Intelligence (AI) and technology can take in supporting these efforts.
Writer/director Jon Welch manages to balance both themes throughout this thoughtful and provocative production. We see Sally, recently widowed following the death of her husband from a genetic wasting disease, already struggling with the consequences of dementia. Raymond, her husband, was a robotics and AI engineer. Foreseeing his early death and Sally’s decline, he develops an ‘intelligent’ robot to support his wife after he dies. In a final act of love, he incorporates their joint memories into the robot in order to keep her company after he has gone.
Always approaching his subjects with dignity and intelligence Welch manages to pull a lot of punches in this short production which is both heartbreaking and inspiring. Running alongside Sally’s slow decline we are repeatedly shown flashbacks from the lives of the younger Raymond and Sally – their first meeting, their wedding. The frequent returns to their early years together constantly remind us of the vitality of their younger selves. The sassy, precocious Sally and the doting, earnest Raymond playing alongside the older deteriorating woman is a wake-up for all of us. The proximity of their situation to what may become of any of us is inescapable.
The surprise element in this production is the robot and technology on display. Not meant to be the cutting edge of what technology can achieve now, the robot on this stage is nevertheless extraordinary. Supplied by Engineered Arts’ Will Jackson, the ‘robot’ Raymond is a metal skeletal body with a reflective membrane stretched over the fixed face onto which facial expressions are projected. Programmed by Will and his technical team the robot’s movements and facial expressions are remarkably expressive. One tilt of the head and blinking eyes and we know the robot has been programmed to respond to its situation to give comfort. The outstretched hand for Sally to hold, with each finger moving independently, offers the companionship that she is missing.
Despite being transfixed by the robot the actors are also compelling. Judy Norman is heart breaking as she shows the deterioration of the older Sally. The younger couple, played by Hannah Stephens and Mike Tonkin Jones, are excellent.
Much as Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series shows us the exciting benefits and alarming limitations of the development of technology, Welch doesn’t shy away from the difficulties and limitations of using robots in care. As much as the dying Raymond wanted to provide some company for Sally, the robot was also the cause of some her disorientation and confusion. No one is suggesting that robots can replace human companionship but if writing and drama like this can produce some intelligent debate about how their use can be explored for the benefit of all. A great demonstration of the power of theatre in informing our debate.
Runs until 4 February 2017 then continues tour | Image: Contributed