I’m an absolute sucker for a play that can generate debate for hours afterwards; a play that challenges you and which you find yourself turning over and over in your head as you try to piece it all together. So on paper Secret Thoughts (part of Omnibus Theatre’s AI Festival) would seem to contain all the right ingredients, with its promise to “challenge your beliefs, celebrate your uniqueness and wonder if a day will come when you find the same quality in an AI.” The problem is that, well, it left me scratching my head for all the wrong reasons. Rather than challenge me, it left me feeling a coldness towards it and ultimately a little bored.
Helen (Emma Wilkinson Wright) and Ralph (El Anthony) seem a perfect pair to create the conflict required for a good debate. She’s a creative writer, admitting that a sex scene in one of her books is the one everyone seems to want to talk about most, while he is a scientist, fascinated by the question of what consciousness really is. Clearly polar opposites. But they’re connected as both are university lecturers who quickly form a friendship through a desire to debate their topic. Which leads to conversations of what makes us human, what differentiates us from other animals, and of course the all-important question of what consciousness is.
It should be fascinating, yet the problems start early, first with the play’s styling. It clearly wants to merge the creative with the science and so tries to be very arty in look and feel. Scenes are interspersed with movement pieces, often performed in slow motion. But I just couldn’t work out exactly what the purpose of these was? The scenes themselves are a mix of private moments of inner monologue as the characters write or dictate their private journals, revealing to us their secret thoughts, and then sections where the pair converse together. There is clearly a lot of thought in these moments, but the problem is that they feel just too cold in delivery, never drawing us to either character enough to really care what they are thinking. And without caring for them, it then becomes impossible to care much for their debates.
When things briefly threaten to get interesting, the action steers quickly away; Ralph’s suggestion that they exchange journals so each can delve deep into what makes the other tick feels like it should bear fruit, and yet it is only there to allow for a later callback about privacy.
Perhaps the big problem is that Secret Thoughts clearly wants to show art and science can be bedfellows in the discussion about consciousness. It tries hard to draw both together, but in doing so seems to leave us dangling perilously inbetween the two. Maybe it would work better in just focusing on the debate that is at its core, giving us a piece that challenges our thinking?
Perhaps I am missing the point; perhaps there is something deeper going on that passed me by as my interest waned and I yearned for the end. As clever as Secret Thoughts may be with its depth of conversation, it never grabbed my attention enough to care, instead leaving me cold and bored. There is ample space for a play that revolves around two people debating a heavy topic, but this just isn’t it. Rather it feels the type of play an AI bot might write given such instructions; the ingredients are right but it lacks enough heart to draw you in.
Written by: David Lodge
Adapted and directed by: Paloma Jacob-Duvernet
Secret Thoughts played as part of Omnibus Theatre’s AI Festival, and has completed its current run.