In Real Life – Is intelligence ever real? (Theatre Review)

In Real Life

Darlinghurst Theatre Company

Eternity Playhouse 15 Sept – 15 Oct. You can grab your tickets here.

Images: Phil Erbacher

Being good at chess does not make you a genius, and the fact that humans think it does (by consensus) is part of our problem with Artificial Intelligence. Work on artificial intelligence is closely linked with a general explanation of intelligence, which is often a black-box definition that states a machine is intelligent if it solves certain classes of problems requiring intelligence in humans, or survives an intellectually demanding environment. Breaking this assertion down further, we feel that AI should contain certain human like attributes, such as knowledge of facts. The risk here is twofold: we may be mistaken in our introspective views of our own mental structure (we may only think we use facts) and the second is there may be entities which satisfy behaviorist criteria of intelligence but are not organized in this way. The main problem is that we regard the construction of intelligent machines as fact manipulators as being the best bet both for constructing artificial intelligence and understanding natural intelligence. The question becomes, are we building the machines or are the machines building us? In the end, intelligence has two parts. The epistemological and the heuristic. Most of the world in AI is devoted to the heuristic, at the expense of the epistemological. AI lies at the heart of mind design, which again is built on an ideology of construction over content. What is distinctive is not the goal but rather the means to it. Mind design is psychology by reverse engineering.

Enter In Real Life as written by Julian Larnach with collaborator and director Luke Rogers. Here we come face to face with the Zizekian questions surrounding AI and power – who wields it, how do they use it, how is it related to money, how does it enhance our defects rather than our strengths? Julian Larnach draws a mother – the great post Lacanian (m)Other, or (s)Mother. This woman (beautifully performed by Anni Finsterer) is a stereotyped mother, obsessed with her child to the detriment of all else. She seeks to create a child ‘to be her heir’; that is, her connection to immortality. She seeks to ‘create’ in this fashion to the detriment of all around her, and uses her finances to control and manipulate. A woman with cancer is left to die in a world of cloning, and a poor maid is coerced to surrogacy. This woman is a tyrant, only made slightly bearable by a suffering that never results in self-examination. Julian Larnarch asks us to see blurred lines here. What is the difference between a sperm fertilizing an egg or DNA being planted in a womb? And why shouldn’t people be genetically engineered according to preference. Isn’t this what mothers have been doing all along? Isn’t choice a form of genetic engineering?

So, the central question of AI comes back to the same question that has been plaguing philosophers for centuries: What is it to be human? In Real Life is a beautifully depicted study in the premise that genetic engineering has been with us all along. It was (possibly) Aristotle who said ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man,’ revealing to us that the indoctrination and manipulation of children is one of the essential foundations of society. Central social descriptors such as patriarchy, socialism, capitalism, religion, heterosexuality and racism are taught at our parent’s knees, by our advertising, school teachers, and artists, amongst other manipulators. Text continues to be the primary force in the construction of meaning, and while we hope to see language as a separate, static entity, it is a dynamic signifying process that encompasses everything. Ultimately, the lesson of In Real Life is that even at the end, AI is in the service of the human at the centre of the stage. AI becomes less of a question about how it will affect us and more of a question about how we will wield it. As Slavoj Zizek would say, the battle for cyber space will be a financial question of will; the freedom to leave it or remain. The real horror and violence of In Real Life is twofold: It is the way a human can manipulate technology through wealth and the way a playwright can convince us (and himself) of a certain perspective under the guise of neutrality.


Isn’t this the very essence of artificial intelligence? Interestingly, our everyday uses of language in social settings generally operate by trying to contain the ‘excesses’ of language, that is the potentially explosive ways in which signifying practices exceed the subject and his or her communicative structures. Some such excesses have been sanctioned in the arts, religion and realism in which passions that might disrupt the social order are channeled. We see these eruptions more in the online space but as always, it is the multiplicity of voices and the real-life imposition of The Local (as opposed to global) that is the regulating voice. Our role as humans, perhaps, is more toward rebellion than innovation and it is in that spirit (that of the ‘daughter’ in the play) that human salvation from our self-created woes is always found. All intelligence is inherently artificial; it is rebellion that leads to integrity, and becomes corrupted in consensus.

In Real Life is a lovely little play, well-crafted and highly intelligent. It’s a joy to watch – not just because of the superb performances of Anni Finsterer and Elizabeth Nabben but also on Georgia Hopkin’s stunning set that is enhanced by Sian James-Holland’s evocative lighting and James Brown’s sound. Light and sound particularly, coalesce to great effect to highlight differences between the ‘real’ and the ‘artificial’ (or surreal). Warmth of ‘sunshine’ and sound of ‘crickets in the night air’ tingle the other senses and further enhance our delicious confusion between what might be real and what is artificial. Luke Rogers does a wonderful job with Julian Larnach’s tight, witty script with a meta reminder that the play is both real and not real; that it inherently carries its own manipulations and can never approach a topic with objectivity. Calling a play In Real Life carries its own captivating problems. We come full circle in our understanding that you can’t deviate from Real Life, even if it doesn’t really exist. Theatre is both fake and real, and is the perfect medium for the refreshing thought experiment produced by this clever team.