At first I can see the sun glancing off the deep blue ocean all the way out to the far horizon. Later, fog has rolled in to obscure the view and almost press upon the glass of the windowpanes. Later still, a slowly revolving starfield has replaced the Earthly view entirely. I think we’re in America, but don’t ask me if that was the Pacific or Atlantic that I originally saw. I don’t think it matters.
On this side of the windows, a tidy brown modern kitchen/living area is sporadically inhabited by four actors who play versions of characters. Marjorie (Anne Reid) is an elderly lady who chats to Walter (Richard Fleeshman) as if he is her departed husband, but he is a Prime: an Artificially Intelligent being programmed with Walter’s memories to stimulate or perhaps comfort Marjorie, who is battling the onset of dementia.
Marjorie lives with her daughter Tess (Nancy Carroll) and Tess’s husband Jon (Tony Jayawardena). They inhabit a familiar and very human situation of dealing with the worry and frustration of trying to do right by an ageing family member on the verge of losing her essence. Lost memories and surprisingly retained/rediscovered ones pepper their relationships.
At some point it seems that Marjorie becomes a Prime herself, her purpose now becoming to provide succor to the daughter who so recently was her carer – a final flip of the parent/child dependency. And then I think Tess also becomes a Prime…
Apologies if I’m a bit unclear on the specifics, but Jordan Harrison’s script (first produced in Los Angeles in 2014) doesn’t spell out the details, and I think that’s mostly for the best. The tropes of speculative sci-fi and dystopias are well enough established that we don’t need to have everything laid out in order for us to understand the situation. Instead, the play presents us with what felt to me like an elegy upon themes of family, memory, love, loss and mortality. It’s powerfully sorrowful without playing easy sentimental cards to get us on side – it has the confidence to trust the audience to engage with its ideas and find our own individual ways towards its meaning. Personally, I found that it strongly agitated certain recent experiences of grief, stirring emotions I assume to be universal.
This borderline abstract play is very well served by its cast. Freeshman’s physicality impresses as the closest of the Primes to a robot, and his unusual relationship with Reid’s skillfully rounded Marjorie provides the early heart of the play. Carroll’s Tess is a very finely realised character exuding a rainbow of complex and nuanced traits – a tremendously truthful performance. As Jon, Jayawardena is given the least to do, but he does it very well. I missed him in the final scene, and wish Harrison had found a way to include Jon in the denouement – he deserved to be in on it.
That final scene concludes with awkward silences as the remaining Primes no longer have anything to say to each other. It’s a very apt end to a very subtle and intelligent play. I looked to the window wishing for a renewed glimpse of the hopeful horizon over the sea, but it was no longer there.
Written by: Jordan Harrison
Directed by: Dominic Dromgoole
Set design by: Jonathan Fensom
Marjorie Prime plays at Menier Chocolate Factory until 6 May. Further information and bookings can be found here.