Marjorie Prime – A short circuit between memory and imagination. (Theatre Review)

Marjorie Prime

Ensemble Theatre 15 June – 21 July

You can grab your tickets here.

Images: Lisa Tomasetti.

“The Memory” has befuddled scientists and philosophers and continues to do so today. Generally, it is accepted that the representation of the past seems to appear to be that of an image. We say interchangeably when we represent memory to ourselves that we have an image of it – an image that can be quasi visual or auditory. In addition to ordinary language, a long philosophical tradition considers memory the province of the imagination, the latter long being treated with suspicion. An example of this concern lies with Spinoza. We read in proposition 18 of the second part of the ‘Ethics: on the nature and origin of the soul:’ “If the human body has once been affected by two or more bodies at the same time, then when the Mind subsequently imagines one of them, it will immediately recollect the other also.” This sort of short circuit between memory and imagination is placed under the sign of the association of ideas: if these two affections are tied by section, to evoke one – to imagine it – is to evoke the other – to remember it. Memory, reduced to recall, thus operates in the wake of the imagination. Imagination, considered in itself, is located at the lowest rung of the ladder of fashions of knowledge. In Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime, Tess’ (Lucy Bell) is concerned that using artificial intelligence to remember personal histories might impact the quality of the memory. When a hologram responds to her outrage with a question regarding the facts of their statement, she is indignant that they are called facts. Yet what memory is ever an accurate portrayal of a moment?

But surely this is Tess’ point. It is not the facts that are the problem, it is the perspective of the individual that retains the essence of them. Herein lies Jordan Harrison’s point. When Marjorie Prime speaks to Tess, Tess is not engaging with her mother, or even a facsimile of her mother. Rather she engages with a hologram building its own memories from pieces of information it is fed. The Prime’s are emergent AI, that is a form of intelligence that learns by reacting to a digital environment and evaluating the outcome according to its predetermined goals – a dynamic process that creates its own set of rules. Scientists in this field consider this learning process to be resembling the process of human memory described by Freud in object relational psychoanalysis. Emergent systems are now contributing to the way we interpret human memory, via shared theories across disciplines. The ultimate end of this is the image we take away from the play, of the three Prime’s speaking together as if they were the humans they emulate. Mitchell Butel places his three Prime’s in a triangle where they remember, forget and reorganise the detail of the lives they are programmed to emulate. It is at this moment, Jordan Harrison make the telling move of having the Prime’s recall facts without the interference of human emotive disruption.

But what business is it of the Prime’s to remember and not forget? Is there a duty to forget? We have good examples in in the history of classical Greece where most cities at regular intervals elaborated amnesty as an institution. In one case, this was sanctified in a law proclaiming citizens should not evoke the memory of evil, or what was considered bad. Citizens promised to not remember something bad. We see in that, the true function of amnesty. Amnesty equally applies when a prisoner completes a certain sentence and their civic rights are reestablished. This signals the end of the punishment. It follows then, that we can organise amnesty which does not mean amnesia. Inside this, we see the duty to remember embodied in teaching and the duty to forget facilitates a possibility to go beyond anger and hatred. Yet these two aims are not compatible. Google has evoked the modern day German law of ‘The right to be forgotten’ – again a technological issue that has emerged as important in an age when our lives are documented according to a certain perspective and set in the stone of E footprints.

And this is the very conversation that Jordan Harrison wants us to have after our visit with Marjorie Prime. Maggie Dence is a luminous Marjorie, delicate in her ageing and beaming as the Prime compiled to resemble her. With enormous presence her age conveys that energetic enthusiasm of older people confronted with the colossal possibilities of technology combined with the wisdom of somehow having seen it all before. She is perfectly book ended by the performance of Lucy Bell as the complicated Tess, a troubled and intelligent woman who stands for our ethical questioning of the rapid movement toward a technical future. Lucy Bell brings a beauty to a role often dismissed as shrewish, and therefore gives a stereotype a much-needed upgrade. Richard Sydenham is completely lovable as the warm but rather lost husband of Tess, Jon and Jake Speer traverses the thin line between humanity and technology with remarkable dexterity. Mitchell Butel’s cast make an intricately woven narrative abundantly clear and they leave us with the plays giant themes rattling around inside, a thousand new questions for each potential answer.

Marjorie Prime takes place on a beautiful set by Simon Greer that artfully blurs the line between past and present. Alexander Berlage uses an understated lighting technique to allow for a cool artifice that reminds us people are warm and machines are not. All in all the entirety of Jordan Harrison’s fascinating enquiries are bundled into an engaging evening that allows yet another spin on the rapidly whirling business of contemporary ethics and our relationship to technology.