In a world where Siri and Alexa can organise our lives without even touching a button, the question of consenting machines seems almost irrational; and yet in Nessah Muthy’s new play set in a frighteningly realistic future, audiences are forced to question what it is that makes something human.
In the intimate setting that is the Kings Head Theatre (a somewhat mismatched but entirely charming theatre), a cast of three takes on six episodic stories and around seventeen characters. Despite the play’s title, I am reluctant to describe what is presented to us as “robots”; a word that conjures 1980s dance moves, metal, tin foil and antennas. Sex With Robots and Other Devices gives us a future in which almost sentient and completely life-like human replicas are as readily available as televisions. In each playlet, the audience is presented with a situation in which these robots could replace human intimacy, and the dangers and benefits to that fact.
When handling a series of mini-plays like this (particularly with the cast playing numerous characters), there is much potential for misunderstanding and feelings of the incomplete. That said, Sex With Robots faces these challenges without issue. Each story is witty and succinct, concluding in a way that feels whole whilst leaving room for questions. The play moves through its stories quickly, and whilst there is no opportunity to get bored, the audience still has the time to ponder the issues raised. The staging itself is also fantastic in alleviating confusion: Helen Coyston’s small but striking set offers many a surprise throughout, with stained, carpeted tiles lifting out to reveal a simple prop or to act as furniture. Yaiza Varona’s sound (often a little jarring although likely deliberately so) paired with Tanya Stephenson’s lighting gives the audience a subtle distinction between the stories. The whole presentation seems to pay tribute to a Blade Runner-esque dystopia, and makes a perfect home for this dark play.
Eleri Jones, Deshaye Gale and Isaura Barbé-Brown seamlessly switch between their characters (a mix of both human and robot); there is never any doubt that someone new is being presented. All three actors succeed in giving each character a distinguishable personality and story, often with no aid but a very basic costume addition or minor change in hair, a true testament to their skills. The lines between reality and technology are perfectly blurred, with it sometimes taking a moment to cue into whether a character is human or robot.
Whilst Deshaye Gale takes some of what should be the wittier parts, it is Eleri Jones and Isaura Barbé-Brown who offer the delivery and timing truly required for the contrast between the comedic and sombre in this piece. Barbé-Brown’s portrayal of both a human and robot version of the same character is fantastic and nuanced, and highlights the subtlety in her own acting. Eleri Jones’ take on the play’s final monologue is horrifyingly brilliant; the audience is confronted with direct eye contact as she forces us to question without doubt, what is acceptable. Her seamless shifting between completely humanlike AI and damaged robot is both startling and wonderful, and makes for the perfect conclusion to the play as a whole.
This is a play which raises bleak questions about our own humanity and the line between AI and sentience. Whilst handling a number of topics, the question of consent overrides all: “is what we do rape”? Is it acceptable to create a replica of your ex to have sex with? Is it okay to abuse and destroy a robot? Because, as Jones highlights in her final monologue, if they don’t take the hit, a human woman will.
A sharp and nuanced play which asks uncomfortable questions with unclear answers. If you love Black Mirror, there is no doubt that you will love this too.
Sex With Robots and Other Devices is showing at King’s Head Theatre until June 2nd.
By Emma Quick