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Isla review – a touching and troubling inquiry into our relationship with AI

·2-min read

It is March 2020, and widower Roger (Mark Lambert) is given a voice-activated digital assistant by his daughter Erin (Lisa Zahra). This is Isla, and she can help with shopping, play music, relay telephone calls and remind forgetful fathers to take tablets.

Despite some late flashes of malevolent sentience, Tim Price refrains from turning Isla into a science-fiction cliche. Sounding like Alexa’s slightly more punctilious sibling, Isla is no more sentient than the devices we already have. This is the play’s most touching and troubling philosophical inquiry: how our private spaces are shared with machines that struggle to ascertain the humour in a dad joke, recognise silliness or marvel at Venetian canals.

Tamara Harvey’s direction is masterly. Like Roger’s penchant for slow television, there are wonderfully contemplative onstage moments where nothing happens. On Camilla Clarke’s set and under Ryan Joseph Stafford’s lighting, days pass and medicine is taken as we watch a kettle boil. In what is a deceptively challenging role as so much is spent monologing to an inanimate object, Lambert is superb, finding hues of sympathy and compassion in a character in which such responses are not always invited. Beth Duke’s excellent sound design also deserves special mention, imbuing Isla (voiced by Catrin Aaron, who also appears as PC Jones) with a presence that far exceeds her plastic casing.

As Roger’s use of Isla evolves, the narrative takes several dark and Black Mirror-esque turns. Set during the pandemic, it ruminates on several contemporary topics: the loneliness of older adults, the wilful surrender of privacy for convenience, AI ethics, domestic violence and hate speech. But it is a lot to pack in and the elision between each of these concerns isn’t always clear. It is not obvious where our sympathies ultimately should lie, and the play handles issues where such ambiguity isn’t necessarily useful.

Despite arriving at an effectively emotive ending, the resolution feels like an answer to a question that hadn’t been foregrounded. Like Alexa and Siri’s sometimes peculiar phrasing, Isla’s pronouncements – as a device and play – are perfectly clear, but its emphasis falls unevenly.

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