Sayonara: Android-Human Theatre

Seinendan Theatre Company & Ishiguro Laboratory

Arts Centre, 24 August, 2012

 

“The will not compete with life — rather it will go beyond it. It’s ideal will not be the flesh and blood but rather the body in trance — it will aim to clothe itself with a death-like beauty while exhaling a living spirit”

 

Edward Gordon Craig, ‘The Actor and the Über-Marionette’ 1907.

 

Bathed in the dim glow of a spotlight, Germinoid F, twitches and fidgets. I can just make out the strands of her straight, jet-black hair in the faint illumination, and, yes, in this lighting state it is difficult to identify her as an android. This moment of ambiguity is quickly shattered when the lights come up, and the performance commences. Germinoid F is most definitely an android, but her ‘acting’ is not going to give Meryl Streep or Cate Blanchett anything to worry about. She may be made from a variety of sophisticated materials, but her acting is most definitely wooden, and she’s not going to win any awards for improvisation. She is, after all, a kind of puppet.

 

As a purely technological phenomenon, Germinoid F is underwhelming. She can’t move, or speak without the aid of a pre-recorded human voice. She is literally rooted to the spot, and while her hair, skin and subtle body movements mimic those of a human, she’s not fooling anyone. Indeed, she’s not representing a human being at all, for Sayonara is a play about the interaction between humans and robots.  More specifically, it tells the story of a young girl who has a terminal illness, and is given a robot as a kind of caretaker/ companion. The robot reads the girl poetry, and engages in a series of exchanges about life and death, exchanges that resonate with the subtext of the play, which asks us to consider whether mortality defines humanity. In a way, Germinoid F is playing herself.

The relationship between the human and the non-human has a long lineage. Theologians and philosophers have often sought to define the human in terms of difference: humans have the power of speech, so they are different from animals, and non-organic matter; humans are distinctive because they have consciousness, or, more properly self-consciousness unlike other life forms. Heidegger famously argued that the human being, Dasein, is different from other kinds of beings because it is the only being that can contemplate the question of being itself. While Germinal F fails to qualify as human in any of the above terms, it is worth observing that contemporary philosophy appears to be skeptical of any absolute difference between the human, and non-human (have a look at Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am, or Agamben’s The Coming Community for a start). Unfortunately, Sayonara doesn’t really engage with any significant ideas about the human/non-human relationship that hasn’t been explored already, with more rigour and sophistication, in philosophy and science fiction. Star Trek’s ‘Data’ and Blade Runner’s Replicants (to name to two most obvious texts that explore the ways that robots unsettle easy conceptions of the human) provide a far more compelling treatment of the topic. However, I’ll concede that the theatre, Karel Čapek’s RUR aside, has rarely attempted to explore the philosophical problems raised by the development of androids, and I guess this is Sayonara’s most distinctive feature. Can the theatre exist without human actors? Well, animated film has proved that we can dispense with human bodies in the quest for thrills, spills, laughs and tears. I’m not sure the questions raised by android-human theatre are especially novel or interesting.

 

The program notes (and the audience questionnaire distributed at the performance’s conclusion) suggest that the creative team is most interested in the extent to which an audience can empathize and sympathize with an Android. The play has a coda, which sees the Android sent into a hazardous radioactive environment in place of a human. Now, even though the dialogue and acting were fairly pedestrian it was obvious that some members of the audience felt genuine emotion when the hapless Android was dispatched into the disaster area (in a somewhat heavy-handed reference to the recent nuclear accidents caused by earthquakes).

 

Given the right circumstances, and skilled craft, audiences can be made to identify with a wooden chair. We have been crying over fictional deaths and gnashing our teeth at the dastardly acts of unreal villains in novels and films for a long time. We don’t require the co-presence of a three dimensional human being to feel empathy, and, theatre lost any claims to being the exclusive domain of inspiring human emotion a long time ago.

 

I’m sure that it won’t be too long before a truly amazing android makes its stage debut, and Hirishi Ishiguro, might even be responsible for its appearance (he’s obviously one of the smartest people on the planet, and he proved to be an engaging and witty raconteur in the Q&A session that followed the performance of Sayonara). I’m just not sure that the quest to find the perfect human analogue in the form of an android actor will make a significant contribution to the quality of contemporary theatre, but who really knows what Ishiguro’s work might engender?

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