ALAN Ayckbourn’s 89th play, Constant Companions, opens tonight (7/9/2023) at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, looking cautiously just around the corner to a world of AI and android love.
In his second play of the year set in the not-too-distant future, after May’s run of Welcome To The Family at The Old Laundry Theatre, Bowness-on-Windermere, he weaves together the stories of lawyer Lorraine, lonely bachelor Don and technician Winston with Ayckbournian humour and a shot of compassion.
Lorraine is a fabulously successful lawyer of a certain age. Jan Sixty is the janitor of her building, an android of indeterminate age. In this vision of our future, where humans have turned to artificial friends for companionship without compromise, Ayckbourn ponders whether Lorraine and Jan can find true love.
“Reading so much about the inevitable arrival of AI into our society – some would say it’s already here! – I felt a cautious look forward might be in order,” he says.
“Are we really prepared for an encounter with another race? Not from outer space, but one of our own creation which will inevitably eventually turn out to be a lot smarter than we are? Honestly, the human race! As if we didn’t have enough problems already.”
At 84, Star Wars aficionado Ayckbourn is enjoying speculating on human interaction in the years ahead. “I feel I’m standing at the point in my writing where I have the choice of looking back and looking forward,” he says. “With Family Album [last autumn’s SJT premiere], I was looking back from a modern perspective, over my conscious lifetime.
“This time I thought, ‘let’s look ahead’, though next year I will probably look backwards again, so it’s a see-saw.”
Welcome To The Family straddled both worlds, taking its protagonist, Josh, and his fiancée Sara back to his childhood world from the future with the aid of his wicked Uncle Lance’s gift of a state-of-the-art ‘Capture’ visit to the past that enables him to revisit his deceased parents and family home whenever he likes.
“Everything I write about set in the past could recur in the future,” says Alan. “Thematically, in Constant Companions, the issues raised by AI are the new challenge, and the more one reads the news, Artificial Intelligence is coming and is very nearly here already [in the form of robots].
“Its social impact will be enormous, and the issues we thought were settled, in terms of class and race, will rise again, where they will be considered a different class and a different race, so all these problems will be reactivated. If we think we are on the road to sexual equality, we have another think (CORRECT) coming.
“Maybe we can imagine a colour-blind, sexuality-blind future, but the same things are going to happen again. The interesting thing is that these new creations, these new ‘humans’, will outlive us by millennia.”
Alan considers a second question: “Why have other planets not made contact with us if they are so advanced? But we’ve only been here for ten seconds, compared to the billions and trillions that the universe has been ticking over.
“I have this vision that in the long-distant future, we would eventually make contact or they would contact us, not through human, but artificial intelligence embracing each other, so that android will shake hand with android.”
Ayckbourn’s play projects into a future where the android will miss humanity. “I feel that despite the precautions we can build into the development of AI, that takeover will eventually occur, even if they don’t go berserk and run amok with a machine gun,” he says. “It will be humane, looking after us until the last hospice in town closes down.”
Ayckbourn finds humour, both wry and dry, in contemplating “mixed relationships occurring, as I foresee they might”. “Humans will pair up with androids simply because they will be mixing, and there will be these rather fetching androids looking after our every need,” he says. “But the play looks beyond that to when the woman is in old age, beset with memory loss, and the consequences of that, because the human race is stuffed with foibles and things will go wrong in us.”
In a third Ayckbourn drama for 2023, he will make a rare outing as an actor on September 17 alongside the Constant Companions cast of Georgia Burnell, Andy Cryer, Tanya-Loretta Dee, Alexandra Mathie, Naomi Petersen, Richard Stacey and Leigh Symonds, plus SJT alumnae Christopher Godwin and John Bramwell, in a rehearsed reading of Truth Will Out, his Covid-cancelled 2020 play for the SJT.
In this up-to-the-minute satire on family, relationships, politics and the state of the nation, everyone has secrets. Certainly, former shop steward George does, as do his right-wing MP daughter Janet, investigative journalist Peggy and senior civil servant Sefton.
Cue one tech-savvy teenager with a mind of his own and time on his hands to bring their worlds tumbling down – and maybe everyone else’s along with them.
Here was Ayckbourn’s virus play, written before Coronavirus stopped everything (although Ayckbourn subsequently wrote prodigiously in lockdown). Now he will hear Truth Will Out read aloud for the first time. Truth will out, no matter the delay.
Alan Ayckbourn’s Constant Companions, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, tonight until October 7; Truth Will Out, rehearsed reading, September 17, 2.30pm. Box office: 01723 370541 or sjt.uk.com.
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