Humans having sex with robots has been a constant theme in science fiction for a long time, but now that the technology is almost there, there’s a new edge to works speculating about the consequences. One such work is Nessah Muthy’s play Sex with Robots and Other Devices, the world premiere of which is now taking place at the King’s Head Theatre.
Isaura Barbé-Brown, Deshaye Gayle and Eleri Jones make up the entire cast but play some 17 characters across half a dozen separate storylines. Each plot explores different circumstances where a sex robot is introduced into a situation and how it’s supposed to help, but the one thing each story has in common is that things don’t always go as planned. Many of the characters obtain the robots out of grief, not necessarily because their loved-one has died but often because they’ve lost them in some other way, whether through a break up, the loss of a sex life or an illness that sees them change. Ideas of replication feature too, as some characters choose to have a robot that is an exact or close copy of a real person.
Robots’ sentience is of coursed discussed. As one character enjoys emotional updates in her model and even falls in love with it, she is then shocked and upset when the same loving robot asks, “is what we do rape?” What starts off as a simple sex toy, an inanimate object, is upgraded and upgraded until it looks, talks, thinks and feels like a human, to the point where consent becomes a factor. The addition of sentience complicates the simple act of using a sex toy by having to ask its permission first, but is turning its potential sentience off a fair way to resolve the issue?
Barbé-Brown and Gayle seamlessly switch from human to robot characters thanks to movement director Rosa Manzi-Reid’s choreography. Jones doesn’t take on as many stiff animatronic movements, but all of them nail what I imagine is one of the hardest feats of acting – trying to be convincing as a human in a character that’s not. Barbé-Brown plays some of the most interesting characters and while there are a few simple costume changes, she is skilled at making each character really feel like someone new and different.
Hair is an important tool in Sex with Robots and Other Devices. A large number of the scene transitions are marked by the changing of a hairstyle with nothing more than a hair tie or scarf. When costumes are used, they often appear from the clever use of space at the King’s Head Theatre. The small stage is edged by glowing wires and electronic objects – devices – but on top the tiles can be moved, as blocks to become seats and cupboards are revealed to hide props and clothes. Helen Coyston’s clever set and costume design makes the changes simple but effective, especially as the changes are all accompanied by futuristic music and lighting engineered by sound designer and composer Yaiza Varona and lighting designer Tanya Stephenson.
Directed by Bobby Brook, Muthy’s play takes an oversaturated story trope and makes it refreshing and poetic. Brook and Muthy are two of the four founders of Cloakroom Theatre, a female-led company. There’s something special about how this play lets gender and race fade into the background, as equality between humans and robots becomes a more pressing issue.
In a world where instead of dealing with our problems we just buy new devices, Sex with Robots and Other Devices asks, “just because we can, should we?”
Sex with Robots and Other Devices is playing at the King’s Head Theatre until 2June 2018
Photo: Nicholas Brittain