The books on the shelves behind the humanoid robot slowly disappear throughout the play. It is a powerful visualisation of the erasing of a life.
The life is Sally’s. Our protagonist in Spillikin is a foul-mouthed older woman, played by Judy Norman. At the beginning of the play she has already forgotten her husband is dead. He has left her a robot, filled with all his memories, to keep her company through her descent into Alzheimer’s.
It sounds depressing but what unfolds is a tender love story that asks us to question what marriage entails, how our memories define us, and even where the boundaries between human and robot lie.
While Sally and the robot interact on one half of the stage, a young Sally and her husband Ray, played by Hannah Stephens and Mike Tonkin Jones, act out the pivotal moments in their relationship on the other.
The robot in Spillikin, the pioneering ‘RoboThespian’ creation by Cornish art-robotics company Engineered Arts, is both human and inhuman. The face, really a shaped TV screen whose image can be changed to alter the gender or ethnicity of the robot, blinks and moves like a human. As the play goes on you cannot help but see it as another character. In one of the most tender moments of the play, the robot (seemingly) understands Sally’s distress at the memories it prods and asks her if she wants it to switch itself off.
But at the same time it does not act like a human. There is an intangible subtle sensitivity that is missing. The robot is unthreatening and caring towards Sally, but I could not help a lingering unease. Does it really learn to understand and care for her? Or is it just playing out specific pre-programmed responses?
The robot takes up a lot of focus in the play. It is innovative and unlike anything I have ever seen in the flesh before. It brings some of the most famous representations of artificial intelligence to life, taking further the recent ethical discussions about robotics that films like I-Robot and Ex Machina have started.
It is fascinating to see the robot’s limits – it is flawed and ultimately fails to be a companion for Sally. She mocks it for its lack of humanity, and, in a biting remark, for its lack of a penis.
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This is effective because, by that point, the robot is no longer a robot but Sally’s husband, at least in her mind. When she emasculates the robot, she is playing out the guilt and hurt she has experienced in married life. It is almost a shame the presence of a sophisticated robot is so new, because it distracts from these brilliantly subtle elements of the performance.
It is the freshness of the script and the light but powerful acting in which Spillikin excels. It’s too rare to see a complicated middle-aged woman swearing on stage and boasting of her former sexual prowess.
Judy Norman does justice to a difficult and emotionally demanding role, repeatedly realising her husband is dead. The blossoming love between the cool, forthright young Sally and nerdy, awkward Ray unfolds poignantly. There is a strong chemistry that gripped me through the turbulent, and ultimately joyful, union.
It was not perfect: at times the dialogue was clunky. The odd cringey remark, like that from Sally early on that her memory was like a … “oh what’s it called again” could have been skipped.
The show is followed by a Q&A with the cast and either the writer Jon Welch or the robot inventor Will Jackson, partly so they can hear the audience’s reaction to the robot. You can view this either as a fun way of finding out about the robot, or the ultimate breaking of the fourth wall, where the cast become the spectators and the audience the spectacle.
The audience is left to make up their own mind about the ethical and emotional quandaries that the play provokes. Because of this, and some sublime acting, you should go and see it.
Spillikin is a show by Cornish theatre company Pipeline Theatre and is on at The Pleasance until 19th March.