Monday, June 18, 2018
Marjorie Prime by Jordan Harrison. Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, June 15 – July 21, 2018
Previewed by Frank McKone
The Ensemble Theatre this week brings the original stage play of Marjorie Prime to Australia for the first time. Written in 2013, workshopped that year at the Pacific Playwrights’ Festival, and premiered by the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles in 2014, the play made Jordan Harrison a Pultizer Prize finalist.
The film adaptation by Michael Almereyda, made after the play’s New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons, was a winner at the 2017 Sundance Festival.
Opening night on Tuesday is already booked out, and I’m not surprised. In many ways the 85 minute stage play is more tightly focussed on the relationship between Marjorie and her daughter Tess than the more “discursive” movie, which is only slightly longer. This is because all the external scenes – about the dog Toni on the beach, for example – are created by us in the theatre, in our imaginations, as we watch, listen and try to work out what really happened and what were slightly manipulated memories among the questions, answers and stories of the four living characters and the three “primes”.
For those who haven’t heard of “primes” (and haven’t seen the trailer of the film on Youtube), these are artificially intelligent compassionate robots of those who have died, providing some kind of comfort for those still living. They are ‘primed’ about the past by what the living tell them about themselves and others. In a sense, we in the audience are ‘primed’ too, though we don’t speak back, asking questions or commenting as the ‘primes’ do – we just listen, think things out and maybe talk to our friends afterwards.
When Maggie Dence appears as Marjorie Prime after her earlier scenes as Marjorie, the subtle shift in her characterisation is startling and even quite disturbing. The same is true later of Lucy Bell as her Tess translates into Tess Prime. We always know that the long dead Walter is Walter Prime (still aged about 30), but I found myself wondering whether Jon, Tessa’s husband – a linking character throughout the drama – is or is not a Prime at certain points.
On stage the immediacy, especially in the Ensemble’s intimate theatre-in-the-round, makes the play stronger, I think, than a movie which feels more like ordinary reality. Because Mitchell Butel has kept his design simple and stylised as an obviouly staged performance – where the actors shift the furniture and props into place for each new scene – the effect is to create a kind of Brechtian distancing which makes us think about the issues – of human family interactions as much as ideas about artificial intelligence devices and their potential in our future lives.
The quality of the acting in the preview I saw goes without saying considering the experienced cast, and certainly says not to miss the opportunity – after Opening Night, of course – to see Marjorie Prime in its original form.
Director – Mitchell Butel
Set & Costume Designer – Simon Greer
Alexander Berlage – Lighting Designer
Lucy Bell – Tess
Maggie Dence – Marjorie
Jake Speer – Walter
Richard Sydenham - Jon