WRITER: LAUREN GUNDERSON DIRECTOR: ANNA LEDWICH DESIGNER: GEORGIA LOWE
LIGHTING DESIGNER: JAMES WHITESIDE
COMPOSER AND SOUND DESIGNER: MAX PAPPENHEIM
VIDEO DESIGNER: DANIEL DENTON CAST: MYANNA BURING; DAKOTA BLUE RICHARDS; YOLANDA KETTLE; ABIGAIL THAW
HAMPSTEAD THEATRE, ETON AVENUE, LONDON NW3 3EU
UNTIL 14 OCTOBER 2023
Abigail Thaw; MyAnna Buring; Yolanda Kettle & MyAnna Buring
Photos: The Other Richard
MyAnna Buring & Yolanda Kettle; MyAnna Buring; MyAnna Buring & Dakota Blue Richards
Photos: The Other Richard
REVIEW by KATHLEEN BONDAR
Billed as a “World Premiere “, Anthropology is one of the first stage plays to tackle the topic of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Written by Lauren Gunderson, a Hampstead Theatre veteran, this timely play introduces the idea of a digital simulation of a lost person. The lost person in question is Angie (Dakota Blue Richards - The Golden Compass; Skins; Arcadia) the younger sister of Merril (MyAnna Buring - Twilight: Breaking Dawn; The Witcher; Downton Abbey).
After a year of personal searching, and a year of police investigations, Merril still refuses to accept her sister could be dead. As one of Silicon Valley’s leading software engineers, she embarks on recreating her sister on screen using data from mobiles, social media and any computer programme in which Angie may have participated. From all this Merril engages in witty, in-depth conversation with Angie, blurring the boundaries between the real person and the artificial creation. It’s all very twenty-first century Frankenstein, except virtual Angie does not go berserk. In fact, the virtual sister begins to offer some insights into Angie’s life leading up to her disappearance.
Enter Merril’s ex Raquel (Yolanda Kettle - Patriots, Almeida; Deep Blue Sea, National Theatre and Eden, Hampstead Theatre), described by Virtual Angie as adorable and “lemony” (she makes lemon curd). Sweet natured Raquel, however, is not fooled. It turns out the real Angie couldn’t stand Raquel, but starry-eyed Merril is the programmer after all and so begins the controversial debate about digital simulation and who’s in control. Virtual Angie, it must be remembered is created by Merril who quips, “I built you because this is what I do. It’s my job. These are my tools, I used them, and honestly it’s not that hard – you’re basically a chatbot.”
Recreating the dead as weird is rather sidelined, despite the introduction of the sisters’ brassy, ex-addict mother Brin played by Abigail Thaw (Endeavour and The Strange Death of John Doe, Hampstead Theatre) who looks suitably horrified when Merril shows her screen creation. She protests at the preposterous idea but swiftly succumbs to the seductive pull of having her daughter back. Virtual Angie is very convincing with plenty of “hey mom’s” and “love you’s”.
The emotional fall out of recreating a virtual dead person comes across as something of a backstory to the genius idea of making a virtual person the support actor. Similarly, the cold case thread is somewhat secondary and unravels in a sudden rush towards the end of the play. Even the existential debates concerning AI seem less central to Anthropology. All these aspects are fascinating, mind you, and all the actors are exceptional, but it’s the clever banter between Virtual Angie and Merril that make Anthropology so gripping.