‘Marjorie Prime’ lingers.
‘Marjorie Prime’ shuffles quietly onto the Sunnybank Theatre Group’s stage, with all of its cerebral, confronting, slowly unfolding baggage hidden, but in tow. The play by Jordan Harrison answers no questions, it only asks, and challenges the audience to find their own answers and meaning from what follows.
Under the guise of a small family drama (a family grappling with dementia, death, and confronting their own mortalities) the play ‘Marjorie Prime’ is about so much more than just kin. The play presents us with the Prime, an android pumped full of your loved one’s memories, the device provides a way of keeping them with you, forever. A way of coping with diseases like dementia as comfort in your final days. It’s also a dangerously seductive slice of immortality.
The situation is eerily appealing. But begs the question, what is a memory? Are your memories accurate when your mind is starting to betray you? What if loved ones decided to selectively edit out memories that were painful for you? What if you decide to change how events in your life played out, your engagement, perhaps? Just a slight tweak in the events to make it perfect for you. Forever.
Director Paul Marshall has clearly tackled the production with enthusiasm, and the play is an incredibly bold choice to bring to the stage. He utilised the small space at Sunnybank well, with a stylishly designed set that felt comfortable and modern, and surprisingly spacious, very in keeping with the slightly futuristic, but still relatable setting of the play. The sound design matched, with the gorgeous Vivaldi’s Four Seasons playing through some scenes. The music could have been used more at points to ground the play, especially as the scenes become more and more meta.
As the frail ‘human’ Marjorie, Gail Payne’s performance is show-stealing. She brings beauty to the arthritic fog that surrounds her character and is regal in her dotage. As Marjorie Prime, Payne is alert, still, and her eyes are somehow more piercing. She is kinder, in a way that we never see her human counterpart being. It’s a wrenching shift to witness, and the audience reacted audibly when they realised a change had been made.
In many ways, considering the major demographic of Sunnybank Theatre Group’s matinee audience, Marjorie, and by extension Payne, is their window to the world. It would have hit home hearing subjects like death, loss, forgetting, and memory discussed in what is often a very cerebral, clinical, and unpleasant way. Although the play definitely has many funny moments, one audience member remarked at the interval, “well this certainly isn’t a rolling bag of laughs, is it?”
There were moments of feeling the audience disconnect as they processed things that were said, arguments that were had, watching the Prime’s come to life, and drawing back uncomfortably as memories begin to be twisted and changed. It is a nice reminder that theatre is not always there to comfort you, that it is okay to be a little confronted, to stare into the mirror of the stage and see ourselves. It offered a strange sense of voyeurism, almost looking through another, much more visceral prism, to watch the events of the play unfold.
As Tess, Jane Rapley gave us a woman very much uncomfortable with her life, and her place in it, and demonstrably unsure in her family space. She is rarely idle, never sitting still for long periods of time. Rapley presents a woman on the edge, deeply unhappy, deeply disconnected with her family but proceeding with the tasks in front of her because she must. The contrasting stillness when we meet Tess Prime, is, as with Marjorie Prime, deeply jarring. She is somehow content, peaceful, helpful, and kind, in a way she never was before. The change is alarming, terrifying, and brilliantly played.
Walter Prime is the android infused with memories of Marjorie’s dead husband and is played by David Richardson. With all of the other ‘Prime’s’ known to the audience as human beings first, Richardson has the most difficult role – by establishing the man that was Walter through the android, without us ever having met him. He is also presenting Walter in his prime, in his 30’s, whole and hale, rather than at the age he should rightly be.
It is unnervingly difficult to forget that Walter is not human, and through Richardson’s stiff, occasionally faltering performance, and the buckets of charm and comfortableness that he possesses onstage, the audience is constantly jarred back and forth. This could have been an even stronger reaction, if Richardson had let the android drop away to experience genuine moments of human tenderness with Marjorie, before fumbling an answer and returning to an object. This would have let the notes of perversion that Rapley’s Tess clearly felt really hit home.
Perhaps the most grounded and continuously accessible point of reference for the show is Jon, Tess’s husband, played with a wonderful casualness by Steve Tonks. A refreshingly comfortable performance, Tonks gave Jon a beautiful sympathy when it came to not only dealing with Marjorie but also with Tess, as she slowly unravelled. It makes his breaking point towards the end of the show that much more painful for the audience, as he is faced with a horrifying twisted parallel of the life he knew before.
A night at the theatre that asks more than it answers is a seldom seen thing in a community theatre, but ‘Marjorie Prime’ is that exactly. It is a play that will sidle up to you in the middle of the night, in the weeks and months to come, and whisper in your ear. It will ask you questions about what humanity is, what are memories, how do we really know what we are, what happens when we die, and what does immortality mean, and it will ask them when you least expect it. ‘Marjorie Prime’ is well worth the visit to Sunnybank.
‘Marjorie Prime’ plays until March 2nd, 2019. Get your tickets at www.stg.org.au today.