Split Note Theatre’s Artificial is a messy reappropriation of the Oscar-winning film Her, with the most enticing flames in the narrative extinguished by poor execution.
In a world where technology rules almost every facet of our lives, it’s no surprise that boundaries get blurred. Split Note Theatre’s Artificial follows Dom, an engineer responsible for assessing homes to fit a state of the art AI, through the process of coming to terms with the breakdown of his marriage. The AIs adopt the characteristics that the user most needs, providing comprehensive life administration and a friendly voice to fill an emotional void. Sound familiar? Despite the company’s undeniably good intentions to utilise technological advancements to explore humanity, I was surprised by the extent that Artificial emulated so many aspects of hugely popular film, Her. The nuances of love and loss infused with the capabilities of the new age of technology is such a rich and exciting playground for exploration, that it’s a shame this company chose a path that had been walked so closely before.
Dom (sporting the same glasses, moustache and clothes combo as Joachim Pheonix) is an isolated man who spends his lonely evenings reliving the final moments of his relationship through the memories stored in his computer. His sassy AI (Curtis) pleads with him to delete the memories and move on, gradually leading Dom to accept his life as it now through finding new love and finding himself. There is an interesting exploration of how humanity, and the artificial emulations of humanity impact both man and robot, emotionally and physically. The process of Dom moving on via the guidance of his AI into taking risks and discovering himself is interesting, but there are so many tendrils of stories that the ultimate message is a little confused. The integration of music is satisfying but this vehicle might have been more impactful if, again, a self-composing AI wasn’t another trope borrowed from Her. Even the relationship with Adams, the best friend from university, is another aspect explored in the film. Essentially, the only thing that isn’t the same as the film is the platonic nature of Dom’s relationship with his AI, rather than a romantic one, though it was used to serve the same end. Perhaps this is simply chance, but due diligence into researching other stories that explore human/AI interaction would mitigate this vast overlap.
The strongest performance is from the underutilised Dennis/Cub, played by Emily Cundick, whose comedic timing and projection allow for her to shine. Likewise, Curtis’ voice illuminates the dark stage with his dynamic vocal performance. Eva and Adams (Stella Richt) worked well with their material and gave sincere performances.
Aside from the conceptual issues, there are several adjustments that could have been made to improve the execution of the piece. With stationing the AI’s as small orbs of light on the ground, almost all of the most introspective and interesting dialogue is directed at the ground – losing the majority of the impact. If they had put the AI on top of a small plinth, this would have been remedied. Furthermore, the drawing of the smiley face on the orbs rendered the play unprofessional and slapdash in presentation. Lose the hand-drawn face, keep them abstract, do they need a physical representation at all? For a futuristic piece, it feels awfully archaic to have such clunky bits of machinery that Dom manually labours on.
Dom, played by Luke Culloty (who both directed and wrote the piece), needs to exhibit some additional attractive qualities to warrant having two women fighting for his attention. As he wallows in self-pity, it is hard to understand quite why these women are so sweet on him. Ramping up Dom’s humour, which could be self-deprecating to be kept in line with his state of mind, would aid this issue of plausibility as well as giving the play some more satisfying shape.
Another critique that could be easily mitigated is the impact of poor diction throughout. Cundick is the only actor that truly managedsto fill the small room and articulate every word for the audience. Unfortunately, Culloty loses half of his words to the floor and another quarter to mumbling into his moustache. Furthermore, at 90 minutes running time, Artificial would benefit from losing at least a third in length.
The company is clearly just starting out, so it pains me to be so cutting, but this work feels currently too rough to have invited reviewers and not have branded itself as a work-in-progress. For this reason, I’ve chosen not to star this piece – as I feel that it has a way to go and a poor star rating would be damning on their ambition (but in good conscience, I couldn’t offer more). There are flickers of a fascinating idea in there, despite large aspects of it having been covered in mainstream arts before, and there’s a niche in the exploration of technological advancements infringing on humanity that could be extracted.
My advice is to simplify. Lose all additional characters (though Dennis was fabulous – I struggle to understand why they were there?!). Lose 30-40 minutes, lose all props and instead focus on the aspect that is most interesting – the intersection between technology and humanity and how the need for love can drive people to compromise their own.