On the scene, like a sex-obsessed machine: when a robot writes a play

Arifa Akbar
·3-min read

Kazuo Ishiguro, whose new novel Klara and the Sun is about artificial intelligence, has said he is worried about a time when an AI programme is able to write fiction “that can make me cry, that can show human emotions … that can have the capacity for empathy”.

The first drama to be written by artificial intelligence shows we are a long way from that future. Ninety per cent of its “autobiographical” material has been generated from its depths while the remaining – human – touches are administered by a team of computer scientists, theatre-makers and academics. A partnership between the Czech Centre in London and Prague’s Švanda theatre, it is performed in Czech with English subtitles.

Ironically, the first livestream is dogged by stops, starts and prolonged periods of buffering. These glitches contain their own schadenfreude – it is strangely satisfying to know that even artificial intelligence is not immune to technical issues online.

The biggest revelation, though, is that while a computer’s imagination touches, somewhat randomly, on themes of love, loneliness, clowning and performance, it is most often obsessing about sex, which may not be surprising, given the prevalence of internet pornography.

Directed by Daniel Hrbek, the drama has a robot protagonist at its centre, played by Jacob Erftemeijer, who travels through nonsequitur scenes with the air of a glazed, modern-day Frankenstein, wearing the platform shoes of a classic zombie. His master, Viktor (just as in Mary Shelley’s story), has died and he must contend with the human race alone. He meets mostly sultry, suggestive women who moan, gyrate, and throw themselves at his feet. It is strangely reminiscent of a middle-aged male fantasy, but with clunkier chat-up lines. “I wish my binary self had a body like that,” he says to one woman. He tells her she has lips like “warm honey” and says: “I’ll make love to you all over your body.”

There have been plenty of powerfully drawn literary robots, aliens or manmade creatures before now who live in a state of romantic yearning, from Shelley’s monster to Michel Faber’s alien in Under the Skin and Ishiguro’s clones in Never Let Me Go. This dramatic portrayal is not nearly as tender, profound or complex; romantic subjectivity here is uncouth and uninteresting. Maybe humans are simply better at imagining machines in love than the machines themselves.

Another scene features the robot with a man who drops his trousers and tells him, antagonistically: “You’ve got a finger in my butt.” They stand facing each other on an almost bare set and the scenario has touches of Beckett, in its starkness, and Pinter too, in its unspoken power battle. But the dialogue ends up repeating itself and just sounding absurd.

Questions on life, companionship and mortality are voiced but they seem like emotionless musings with no sense of drama, depth or story, and the robot moves on from one surreal scene to the next, as if in a bad dream.

Martin Šimek’s stage design combines an industrial landscape – iron gates or cage-like structures and floor grating that resembles the post-human terrain of Blade Runner – with interstellar arrangements of luminous circles or triangles against a black background.

It is all fairly puzzling and quite a relief when the hour is over. It is also instructive: even if algorithms can help us find love, recommend the perfect book on Amazon and seem to know us better than we know ourselves, a robot cannot write an original or engaging play, at least not yet.