This was one of the most moving theatre experiences I had at the Fringe this year. In terms of straight drama, perhaps the most moving. I’ll have to think about that. What’s certain is that I came out of this production near the point of tears from what I’d seen and heard on that stage.
Artificial intelligence of some kind or another has always been a popular premise, and one that’s only getting more popular. The notion of humans creating a robot that can think and feel to the same extent that we do, continues to fascinate and unnerve us. Split Note Theatre’s Artificial tackled this concept with depth, originality, and an unrelenting compassion. This show bared its soul for the audience and got my own soul opened up a little bit too by the end. The company knows how to play the right combination of elements, in terms of script, acting, and music. to achieve a beautiful level of emotive power.
Luke Culloty’s script is definitely intelligent but largely manages avoid becoming pretentious with that intelligence. Some might leak through here and there but that’s perfectly fine. A little pretension is good for the soul, I always say. The more I think about the premise, the more admire it as an idea. ‘A psychologist who quiet observes families in order to prescribe them their perfect AI’ is such a clever concept and one the play delivered on wonderfully. It manages to find something a little bit new to talk about in an artificial intelligence story and where it includes well-worn tropes of the genre, it utilises them in a way that feels original and specific to this story and these characters.
On the subject of characters, they were impressively crafted and brought to life impeccably by a pretty flawless cast. Culloty himself as Dom did a fine job keeping the audience invested in this often unlikable protagonist and ensuring his story still carries a heavy emotional weight. Stella Richt as Adams was an incredibly earnest performer, who used her brief time onstage to tug quiet relentlessly at the audiences heartstrings. Maja Laskowska, as Eva, tapped into that essential element of creating character that an old tutor of mine called “yearning”. The quality of being able to, without question, convey a deep, defining drive towards a particular goal to find, know, or feel something. Laskowska made Eva’s yearning unmistakable from her first moments on stage and delivered her lines with an agonising level of desperate sincerity.
Fred Woodley Evans as Kurtus, while initially, and consistently, a delightful comic foil for Culloty, ends up being nothing short of heartbreaking, especially in conjunction with Emily Cundick as Kub. The long scene the two share near the play’s end was a large part of what rendered me an emotional wreck for the rest of the afternoon. Woodley-Evans spoke his lines in this scene with soft and soothing yet still devastating precision with Cundick able to distressingly portray…well…distress. Odd as it may seem for a scene that visually simply featured two glowing hemispheres on a darkened stage, it was one of the most powerful and touching death scenes I saw at Fringe 2018 and very few things brought me that close to tears this year.
All of the above being true, there is one final element that was essential to making Artificial such an emotional powerhouse, and that would be Issy Matheson’s score. I can only call it ‘sublime’. Truly, truly sublime and utterly perfect to accompany this script. I adore the piano, so it’s an easy way to my heart, but this broke me a little with how beautiful it was, and only about two other shows have done that this year with their music.
I do perhaps, have some slight misgivings over one or two choices in this piece. The female characters in the play have a tendency to be defined by their relationships, by being somebody’s wife or girlfriend, as well as a habit of falling in love with the male protagonist. This is a problem but not one that by any means derails the show or stops it being as powerful as it is. It’s something I would recommend looking at and thinking about but it’s only one unfortunate blip in what is still one of my favourite new pieces of drama I saw this year.
I’m rarely moved by something as much as Artificial moved me, and I can only hope that this play has a life after Fringe and that this company has more to show the world.