King’s Head Theatre, London – until 2 June 2018
In 2016 I ran the press desk at a sex robots-themed academic conference at a south east London university, and I find sex robots fascinating, so I was eager to see how Nessah Muthy’s award-winning drama, Sex With Robots and Other Devices, played out at London’s King’s Head Theatre.
Sex robots are a very interesting concept – and they’re also some serious clickbait. Academics debating the technological possibilities and ethics of sex robots was hot stuff. Picture editors went wild, everyone was obsessed, and the debate has continued to rage ever since.
The most interesting part of it all is that, although the idea has been around since ancient times, sex robots don’t really exist. We’ve currently got anthropomorphic plastic dolls with metal skeletons, blank eyes, your hair colour of preference, and detachable bits and bobs. A few of the latest can now hold a basic conversation. But inventors are still a long way off creating anything truly lifelike, interactive, or not incredibly, incredibly, creepy.
Sex With Robots and Other Devices gives us a glimpse into what could be our future, wittily and succinctly exploring whether or not we should be okay with it.
Are sex robots morally justifiable and, if so, in what context? In this imagined world where their existence is normal and mainstream, what impact will sex robots have on humanity and what impact could humanity have on these artificially created forms as they learn to ‘think’?
Isaura Barbé-Brown, Deshaye Gayle and Eleri Jones play some 17 human and non-human characters between them, across six different scenarios, each imagining a different relationship between sex robots and solo humans or couples.
Everything’s set in the same flat, at different times. Designer Helen Coyston’s cracked tiling and stained carpet, and Tanya Stephenson’s green-tinged light, immediately evoke either a Bladerunner-style sleazy dystopian future, or a fairly relatable contemporary environment for those renting on a budget in London.
We begin with a young couple with a mismatching sex drive – he wants it, she doesn’t – going through an incredibly sad and realistic rough patch.
The woman (Jones) encourages her partner (Gayle) to have her replicated to ‘use’.
But he promptly falls in love with the bot (Barbé-Brown, arriving in a bodybag before skilfully mirroring Jones’s speech and mannerisms) and Jones gets jealous.
In a second scene a bot played by Gayle becomes smart enough to think, and questions whether what is being done to him by his owner (what word should we even use here for someone who buys a sex robot?) is rape.
What happens when a bot becomes sentient? If it can think and feel emotion, should it then have the same rights as us to be safe and able to revoke consent? Has a play ever raised so many questions?
In my favourite, incredibly poignant, scenario, Barbé-Brown plays the partner of Jones, who is experiencing what we assume to be some form of dementia.
Jones’s character has become over-amorous but Barbé-Brown doesn’t want to sleep with her (I use the pronouns of the actors here, as their characters’ genders are ambiguous in some scenes).
Loving, caring, and keen to please and placate, she has Gayle created as a replica to keep Jones happy. Jones believes Gayle is Barbé-Brown, but it feels wrong to mislead her.
It brings up an interesting parallel to the story above about consent and rights for humans who may or may not be able to make informed choices.
It’s hard to imagine technology becoming so advanced in our lifetimes that one could genuinely mistake a robot for a human in the flesh, but who knows what’s going to happen in the next few decades with the current pace of change.
As an introduction to such a divisive issue, Sex With Robots is perfect.
It deftly brings up the many exciting possibilities, the potential benefit to our lives of such technology, but digs into our deepest fears as human beings as well – of becoming ill, unloved, unable to satisfy emotionally or physically, and easily replaceable by someone or something better, easier, more attractive.
Themes in the sex robot debate go unexplored, such as the issue of child-like bots, for example, or non-humanoids (would something resembling, say, an alien or an imaginary sea creature be extremely cool, or definitely bestiality? Asking for a friend.)
But I’m glad they address one of the biggest issues – violence against women. In some of the play’s later scenes, Jones’s abused bot, lipstick smeared, says, “I’m happy to take the hit. If I am, then someone else – a woman – won’t”.
In another scene, after dismantling a replica of his ex girlfriend, Gayle looks the real, living, ex in the eye and deadpans, “It was actually quite cathartic. Smashing your skull in”.
Are sex robots a dangerously misogynistic concept that encourages abuse, or a valuable proxy which could reduce sex crimes?
Muthy’s script is darkly humourous, and downright hilarious, in places.
Gayle in particular has a brilliantly understated, dry delivery of the funnier lines, and the show’s only real sex scene (between him and his bot, brilliantly played by Barbé-Brown) is particularly amusing.
It takes a few seconds to figure out who’s a bot and who’s not in some scenes but it’s an effective device that serves to emphasise the blurred lines between real life and our potential lifelike companions.
Bobby Brook’s clever direction, and the occasional prop hidden in the small set’s floor compartments, ensures that each story is distinct, while the constant themes of heartbreak, loss, and our inherent imperfection as human beings weaves throughout.
Cloakroom Theatre’s production of Sex With Robots covers a huge amount of ground at fast pace and more than lives up to the company’s aims of creating theatre which “fuels discussions, divides opinion and encourages conversations”.
Running at the King’s Head Theatre until June 2.