anthropology at Hampstead Theatre
US playwright Lauren Gunderson enjoyed immense success with 2018’s I and You at Hampstead Theatre. She returns to the venue with the world premiere of new play anthropology.
Many will be aware of the current actor and writer strikes across the pond. One of the primary concerns of the creative community there is the potential threat of Artificial Intelligence and the idea that people’s voices and images can be used without their consent. Just how reliant might we become on the technology and how prevalent will it be in the future? Yes, AI might bring with it some positives but, in the wrong hands, poses real danger. This forms the basis of Gunderson’s play. However, while it might mask itself as a sci-fi thriller, it is very much a drama centred on grief.
Tech wiz Merril (MyAnna Buring) is consumed with anguish after her sister’s sudden disappearance. Collating data as well as video footage from such things as her social media and text messages, Merril creates a virtual version of Angie (Dakota Blue Richards). What begins as an innocent means of enjoying her sister’s company gradually grows more disquieting. Artificial Angie could have information about what happened to real Angie. Clinging onto whatever ounce of hope there might be for seeing her sister again, Merril becomes increasingly reliant on her creation.
It’s a pertinent premise that interweaves questions about the role and ethics of AI with a domestic drama. Yet, just when we expect to delve deeper into the issues at the heart of the play, we find ourselves distracted by Merril’s mother, as well as an ex-girlfriend. While there are some engaging exchanges between the characters, the dialogue at times creeps too closely towards generic sentimentality. On occasion caricature overrides character. We begin to meander instead of moving forward. Gunderson is an astute observer of human interactions and the intricacies of the different relationships we have – but here she seems to be writing two very different plays.
Fortunately, Buring gives us something to grasp onto with an impressive, multi-layered performance. We believe in her desperation and understand why she does what she does. Richards as the virtual Angie also excels, her robotically upbeat demeanour concealing a coldness beneath. Georgia Lowe provides an appropriately cold, clinical set, which wonderfully complements the pent-up emotions Merril is desperately attempting to contain. The stark stage emphasises our protagonist’s loneliness and plunges us into her world of grief. This is a sleek, well-acted production with some strong writing and some intriguing ideas, but one cannot help but feel the potential of anthropology has not been excavated enough.
Photos: The Other Richard
anthropology is at Hampstead Theatre from 7th September until 14th October 2023. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch the trailer for anthropology here: