'anthropology' review – Lauren Gunderson tackles AI in this sleek sci-fi thriller

Read our three-star review of this world premiere production of anthropology, starring MyAnna Buring, now in performances at Hampstead Theatre to 14 October.

Julia Rank
Julia Rank

American playwright Lauren Gunderson’s new play anthropology is possibly the first play about AI to be written and produced – and it surely won’t be the last.

San Francisco-based Gunderson is one of the US’s most-performed playwrights and she’s had a good year this side of the Atlantic: the musical adaptation of The Time Traveller’s Wife, for which she has contributed the book, is soon to open in the West End, and her charming historical play The Book of Will, charting the collaborative process behind the publication of Shakespeare’s First Folio, will shortly complete its UK tour.

anthropology is a stranger piece, grappling with something that’s constantly in flux and which none of us really understand yet – and likely never will entirely. Anna Ledwich, who previously directed Gunderson’s play I and You at Hampstead, provides a sleek production with some bumpy sections.

Georgia Lowe’s stark design is a blank canvas with only a standing desk, a TV screen and two laptops, like an office that has been stripped of any basic comforts, severely lit by James Whiteside.

Protagonist Merril (MyAnna Buring) is a programming genius with a troubled past. A year earlier, her younger sister Angie (Dakota Blue Richards), a college student, disappeared and is now assumed dead.

To keep her alive, Merril has uploaded all of Angie’s emails, texts, social media posts, documents etc. into a chat programme that allows them to exchange sisterly banter, in-jokes and name-calling. It’s a softer version of the real temperamental Angie. Even more uncannily, this Angie is able to interfere in Merril’s own digital life, sending a text to contrive a reunion between Merril and her ex-girlfriend.

The voice develops into a video projection (it’s helpful that Angie took so many selfies), dropping hints that Angie might still be alive and about who is holding her hostage. Whether any of this is remotely realistic, or could be in the future, I couldn’t say.

In reality, Merril essentially raised Angie in their drug-addicted mother’s absence. Buring, best known for her television work, shows herself to be a grippingly watchable stage actor as the formidably clever and near-suicidal Merril. Her version of Angie was supposed to provide comfort but instead she finds herself “chained to every digital twitch”, desperately holding onto the fiction that she has created.

Less successfully, level-headed girlfriend Raquel (Yolanda Kettle) is defined by the fact that she’s a prolific maker of lemon curd (“a bougie citrus bitch” according to the sharp-tongued Angie) and there’s a fair amount of caricature in mom Brin (Abigail Thaw), who speaks with a Southern drawl, chooses terrible partners, and has replaced drugs with God.

Gunderson ultimately seems cautiously optimistic that AI can be used as a tool for good if used wisely within this ethical minefield. There probably will be more refined plays about the subject in the future, but as the technology sector continues to be heavily male-dominated, it’s particularly important that women’s voices are heard. This is something that affects all of us.

anthropology is at Hampstead Theatre through 14 October. Book anthropology tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: anthropolgy (Photo by The Other Richard)

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