Sam (Gemma Lawrence) grapples with the impact of the death of her mother Kath (Eve Ponsonby), but discovers that she now lives on as an artificial intelligence (AI). We flashback through Kath’s life to learn more about her, and the action touches on the gap that exists between mother and daughter. Ponsonby is powerful as AI Kath: you can really see the strength of this performance when she switches from a raging breakdown in the past to a smooth, emotionless AI in the blink of an eye.
A Dead Body in Taos barely discusses the ethics of life through AI, nor thoroughly interrogates the relationship between mother and daughter. Instead it spends considerably more time on 1970s Vietnam and the activism that the younger Kath had as a driving force in her life. We briefly meet Leo (David Burnett) during the funeral and are shown his meeting with her and the importance he would play in the remaining decades of her life. Burnett is particularly impressive when showing the ageing of his character from a college-goer to a man in his late 60s, with subtle but impressive shifts in body language and posture.
Unfortunately, the emotional core, the chasm in the mother/daughter relationship, isn’t fully explored. There are short scenes where Sam spends time with AI Kath that begin to address this, but it is overlooked in favour of more flashbacks, or time with a lawyer disputing a will. While we can see from the flashbacks that Kath may not be the nicest person, it is a bit of a jump to the complete lack of a relationship with her daughter as she dies. Still, Lawrence does good work as Sam, especially as we get hints of a thawing in her feelings and a suggestion that maybe she does feel a loss.
It is surprising how much the play glosses over Kath’s accumulation of wealth, which is what leaves her able to afford this AI program. Presumably it is from a successful career in advertising but it seems like a fairly significant and particularly relevant point to leave unclarified, especially as it is such a contrast to everything else we learn about her.
A Dead Body in Taos is very American; jokes fly around about New Jersey, Iowa and the West Coast, characters declare their religion as if audiences should immediately understand it reveals something new about that character. A lot of this just doesn’t work. Even the captioned text is in American English and so there are misspellings. A little tailoring for a non-American audience might have gone a long way here.
The stage design (Ti Green) is deceptively simple, initially offering some small wooden steps and an oversized door frame. But then the backdrop comes to life as screens, with superb video (Sarah Readman). This allows for strikingly effective use of light (Katy Morison) and projections throughout, leading to standout moments such as when Leo adds to Kath’s artwork and the video moves and changes to match his movements – even the splatter going off the canvas. The tech supports framing moments, including quite literally framing the AI Kath, but also more subtly throughout. It’s very impressive work from Green, Readman, director Rachel Bagshaw and all at Fuel Theatre. The set design also ensures that every show is fully captioned.
Ultimately, A Dead Body in Taos doesn’t fully hold together. The concept is great, as is the creative team, and the cast is strong, but it feels incomplete; a work in progress. This would be absolutely excellent with a little more focus and tightening of the story, but for now, it is merely good.
Written by: David Farr
Directed by: Rachel Bagshaw
Design by: Ti Green
Lighting Design by: Katy Morison
Composition and Sound Design by: Ben and Max Ringham
Video Design by: Sarah Readman
Co-commissioned by Fuel, Theatre Royal Plymouth and Warwick Arts Centre with support from Bristol Old Vic
A Dead Body in Taos plays at Wilton’s Music Hall until 12 November. Further information and bookings can be found here.