ANTHROPOLOGY at the Hampstead Theatre
“some interesting twists and turns along the way”
Anthropology, Lauren Gunderson’s new play premiering at the Hampstead Theatre, is a convoluted tale about sibling love that attempts to transcend life as we presently know it. It begins as a tale about a missing woman, and her sister’s refusal to give up the search for her. Since sister Merril is a tech wizard specializing in artificial intelligence, it’s not long before A.I is employed as a tool to help Merril in her mission. But at the heart of Anthropology is an unnerving question: can artificial intelligence mimic humans so well that people begin to respond to them as though A.I was human? And even more chilling: that A.I might produce intellectual and emotional interactions that are somehow even more relatable than the humans they imitate?
Gunderson’s protagonist Merril and her sister Angie have endured a tough childhood marked by their mother’s descent into drug addiction. Merril stepped up as Angie’s parent when mother Brin no longer could, so it’s not surprising that Merril would continue searching for her sister when everyone else has given up. Merril’s grieving is so intense, however, that she turns to A.I not only as a way of trying to find clues about what happened to Angie, but also as a way of maintaining a relationship that she cannot bear to relinquish. A.I Angie, it turns out, is just as prickly and unsettling as the original, and part of the pleasure of Gunderson’s humorous script is watching Merril (played beautifully by MyAnna Buring) caught continually off guard by her digital sibling’s unerring ability to cut to the chase regarding Merril’s failed relationships with lover Raquel (Yolanda Kettle) and mother Brin (Abigail Thaw). There’s a lot more story packed into this tense 90 minute thriller of a plot, and some interesting twists and turns along the way. Ultimately, however, Anthropology is less about the success of artificial intelligence in predicting human behaviour. It is more a story about failed human relationships.
“ninety minutes is too short a time to explore such complex subject matter as artificial intelligence in the context of a family drama”
Anthropology begins encouragingly enough in a gleaming white box of a set, designed by Georgia Lowe, sparsely populated by a podium, a screen, and two open lap tops on the floor. MyAnna Buring as Merril gives an intriguing account of her search for Angie by using A.I to sift through her sister’s digital footprint, looking for clues. Merril is very good at her work, and soon digital Angie has become video Angie, confidently predicting that human Angie may still be alive. There is, however, a price to pay. Merril will have to repair her relationships with Raquel and Brin in order to know for sure. It’s a great set up, and suggests all sorts of directions for the plot to go. The production is further enhanced by a medley of tech inspired lighting (James Whiteside), video design (Daniel Denton) and back projections, plus music and sound design (Max Pappenheim). But what begins promisingly as an exploration of artificial intelligence as solace for grieving (a subject also explored by pioneering sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov), ends up in Anthropology as yet another tale of absent parents and sibling rivalry. Even the wit and sparkle of Gunderson’s dialogue cannot quite disguise the recognition that this is pretty familiar territory, plot wise.
In fairness, ninety minutes is too short a time to explore such complex subject matter as artificial intelligence in the context of a family drama. Anthropology is a very American play; the all female cast treads all too familiar territory in such intimate settings. For all Merril’s high tech bravado, she is still fettered by the assumption that her life and career, are always at the mercy of relationship repair and unmet expectations regarding parenthood. It’s a brave attempt on Gunderson’s part to try to create a cutting edge drama about cutting edge technology. But the results are predictable, given the shortcomings of the humans (still) in charge.
ANTHROPOLOGY at the Hampstead Theatre
Reviewed on 18th September 2023
by Dominica Plummer
Photography by The Other Richard