Review: Sex With Robots and Other Devices (King's Head Theatre)
Nessah Muthy's play looks at a world where robots are rife
Theatre is facing a robot invasion. Alan Ayckbourn's been writing androids for ages: Henceforward, his comedy about a pre-programmed partner, predates the iPhone by a full 20 years. But as automation and artificial intelligence whir into reality, a new generation is asking the same questions anew. Might machines fulfill an emotional function in our lives – and if so, how might that impact on humanity itself?
Thomas Eccleshare's Instructions for Correct Assembly, recently seen at the Royal Court, found a grieving couple wiring up a surrogate son. American playwright Zoe Kazan examined computerised companionship in After the Blast. Nessah Muthy goes one further in this collection of playlets, as a string of sexbots screw their owners in more ways than one.
Her sexbots aren't the stiff-limbed, open-mouthed Barbies on the market today. They're passable alternatives to real human bodies, programmed to respond to your every desire. They kiss back, cuddle nicely and stare lovingly into your eyes. Several are so well-crafted, customisable and life-like, they can replace a real lover – or even an ex – without all the hassle of an actual human. By fast-forwarding to a future where sexbots aren't pathetic fallacies, Muthy raises proper, pointed philosophical conundrums. Can a robot consent? Could AI fall in love? At what point does a simulacra tip into the real thing?
If it's all a bit Black Mirror, the future it imagines isn't all bad. Most of Muthy's eight shorts retain some ambiguity – at least initially. One elderly couple hire in a shapeshifting bot to alleviate the constant desire of dementia, while elsewhere, a sexbot speaks of the self-sacrifice made possible by her insentience: "If I can take the hit, someone – probably a woman – doesn't have to". Her playlets have a certain piquancy. A woman, having lost her libido after losing a child, outsources the sexual side of her relationship to a robot replica – only to find herself out of favour. That's neatly echoed by a heartbroken man who duplicates an ex to relive one night on repeat – the moment they conceived the child whose death tore them apart.
Other robots are replaced, romanced and roughed up, as Muthy asks where our responsibilities start and end. Are machines merely a means to sex, or does human likeness render them somehow human? Can our emotions and our bodies really distinguish real from fake? How private are our passions? These are tantalising and teasing starters for ten.
Too often, however, that's where they stop. There's an art to writing playlets, keeping them self-contained and complete, but Muthy's better at set-ups than following through. She draws situations with skill and concision, then leaves stories dangling, frustratingly incomplete. When a woman's envious of her echo, what comes next? What happens once you reset a robot that cries rape? Muthy shies away from springing the sort of surprising twists short plays need. She raises questions without attempting answers.
Moreover, her form promises a survey, but in confining her scenes to the domestic, emotional sphere, Muthy never really gets under the skin of her subject – or indeed, of her audience. Each sits in a similar socio-economic context, but the effect is to leave a lot unexplored: the means of production, data-driven desire, non-humanoid sexbots. When, I wondered, does human sex become robotic? Bobby Brook's staging is straightforward and swift, and Isaura Barbé-Brown, Deshaye Gale and Eleri Jones all give good robot, but without ever blurring the line between mankind and machine, Sex With Robots and Other Devices is more functional than fully-felt: a play on autopilot.