anthropology at Hampstead Theatre

Neil Dowden in north London
25 September 2023

Hampstead Theatre has done sterling work in staging a number of new American plays in the last few years – though admittedly some have been better than others. Now it hosts the world premiere of the science-fiction drama anthropology by Lauren Gunderson (whose play I and You it also staged in 2018). One of the most produced playwrights in the US, she is little known in the UK, but that is changing. Her comedy The Book of Will is on tour here as a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s First Folio, while The Time Traveller’s Wife musical (based on the best-selling novel) for which she has written the book arrives in the West End next month.


Yolanda Kettle & MyAnna Buring. 
Photo credit: The Other Richard.


anthropology is set sometime in a future California that resembles now – just with a slightly more advanced artificial intelligence technology. Merril, a Silicon Valley software engineer, has fed all the digital information she could find (including everything on social media) into a computer program to create a virtual version of her younger sister Angie who disappeared on the way home from college a year ago and is presumed dead. We hear “Angie” speaking to Merril, then appearing on a video screen. Merril hopes this will help her cope with her grief, but she is also trying to find out what happened to her sister. The lifelike AI Angie claims the real Angie is still alive – and knows how to find out.

Gunderson sets up the drama subtly. We first see Merril having a natural, intimate chat on her cell phone about relationships with someone she seems to know very well, only to ask who they are – and when they say her sister of course, she declares: “My sister is dead.” The AI cannot cope with this level of self-awareness so stalls – and has to be reset. Later, the AI seems be taking over. It messages Merril’s ex-girlfriend Raquel – whom she drove away during her bereavement – to call on her. But it also tells Merril to phone her estranged, multiply married mother Brin – who as a former drug addict abused Angie when a child – as she may have the evidence needed to solve the mystery of her missing sister.

Although there is a sci-fi thriller dimension to the play, Gunderson is more interested in the relationships of humans with each other (especially within a family) than their relationships with machines, while the “what happened?” element proves to be anti-climactic. With algorithms, chatbots, virtual assistants, machine learning, and artificial intelligence having an increasing impact on modern life – and with warnings that it might even develop the capacity to end human life sometime in the future – anthropology resonates with current concerns without getting too “techy”. The most powerful idea – which somewhat fizzles out – is that Merril is re-making Angie in a way that enables them to get on more easily than in reality.

The Pulitzer Prize-nominated Marjorie Prime by Jordan Harrison (seen in a Menier Chocolate Factory production in the spring) also develops the idea of androids replacing dead people to comfort the bereaved, but it concentrates more on the role of shared memories in relationships. Here, Gunderson touches on a number of interesting points about how the ways we interrelate are changing with advancing technology, but ultimately puts a positive spin on what could be very disturbing issues.

In an interval-less 90 minutes, Hampstead stalwart Anna Ledwich makes sure her production keeps the focus tightly on the flawed protagonists who are capable of changing for the better. Georgia Lowe’s stripped-down design features laptops, a workstation, and a large monitor, with the white walls later suffused by Daniel Denton’s immersive video images. James Whiteside’s lighting is forensic, while Max Pappenheim’s discordant score/soundtrack adds to a sense of unease.

MyAnna Buring’s sensitive portrayal of Merril shows a woman struggling not just with grief but with guilt for not having been able to protect her younger sister. Dakota Blue Richards nicely differentiates the rather unsettlingly self-assured AI Angie from the vulnerable human one full of doubts about her own worth. Yolanda Kettle plays the down-to-earth Raquel whose main attribute seems to be making incredible lemon curd, and Abigail Thaw is the remorseful, born-again Christian Brin who is rather close to a Southern trailer trash stereotype – or even perhaps avatar.