A DEAD BODY IN TAOS at the Wilton’s Music Hall
“Rachel Bagshaw’s direction moves the action backwards and forwards with an efficient pace and energy, but we do occasionally get bogged down in explanation”
“When they called saying your body had been found, I had one immediate thought. I remember thinking that maybe now I’d be free”. These are the first words that Sam (Gemma Lawrence) speaks to her mother Kath (Eve Ponsonby) in over three years. Sam has just arrived in the small town of Taos in the New Mexico desert to identify the body. The freedom to which Sam is referring is obviously emotional rather than physical as there seems to have been little communication between mother and daughter up to this point. Nevertheless, Sam would still be seeking some sort of closure, and conversations with the deceased are often consoling.
Not so for Sam. She’s not talking to a corpse, but a mechanical representation of her mother aged thirty-five, into which her mother’s memories, emotions and biographical data have been uploaded. But sadly, not a lot of her personality. Artificial Intelligence has been taken to its technological, moral and unsettling extreme and we are invited to question the nature of death and human consciousness. But before we have much of a chance, we are whisked back to Kath’s student days where there is much talk about the 1968 protests, Vietnam, Cambodia and changing the world. In writer David Farr’s world, it is peopled with caricatures whose urgency and fervour seem to be being lampooned. The link to the present is a touch tenuous, but on the stage the two settings are constantly rubbing shoulders with each other in the revolving doors of a confusing narrative. We are not really sure where to invest our interest.
The dichotomy suits Sam though. Gemma Lawrence is a very watchable presence, particularly when she begins to thaw and engage with her mother’s posthumous identity. Initially outraged, she warms to the idea and we, in turn, warm to the general theme of the piece. Farr explores the flip side of Artificial Intelligence. The Future Life Corporation, where Kath is recreated, focuses on the ‘unintelligence’. The flaws that make us human. It’s not just about synthesising data, but also the false hopes, the self-delusion; the layers of deception inherent in us all. The mess and the chaos. And the unspoken love.
It is a very wordy, and at times worthy, play. Rachel Bagshaw’s direction moves the action backwards and forwards with an efficient pace and energy, but we do occasionally get bogged down in explanation. The use of surtitles is questionable and sometimes distracting and unnecessary. The performances cannot be faulted. Eve Ponsonby’s Kath seamlessly flits from her ardent past to the robotic present, and Clara Onyemere’s portrayal of Tristana Cortez – the humanely pragmatic supervisor at the Future Life Corporation – is one of the highlights of the evening.
The crux of the issues remains unanswered – as they probably always will be. “How do you create a person who has no idea who they are?” asks Cortez. “A Dead Body in Taos”, despite containing some insightful dialogue, doesn’t quite know what it is either. Like some of the scenes there are too many voices vying to be heard. We long to have our focus tied to a stronger lead. Perhaps that is the reason behind the surtitles after all.
Reviewed on 27th October 2022
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Helen Murray
Previously reviewed at this venue: