Deborah Acheampong’s last play, Love Me?, was a big, hot mess with loose ends, plot holes and a gifted dramatic mind writhing and yelling at its centre. Her new one, Bodies, has cleaned up the mess, but the power and imagination are intact, and if anything even stronger than before.
Set in the near future (I’m guessing 2026 because there are a couple of references to 2025 as being the recent past) Bodies takes place over one fraught evening in which three people tussle over relationships, love, commitment, sex and desire. It happens in thousands of homes, day in, day out. But, this being 2026, they are accompanied by the latest Virtual Assistant, an AI called ‘Home’. Home is an algorithm so advanced that it is (quite believably) beginning to take baby steps beyond mere factual assistance and in the direction of actual human emotions. Over the course of the play it begins to give advice, declare its own feelings, and make judgments on others. Think HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey – but more convincing.
Each of the human characters has their own personal conversations with Home, and these chats are brilliantly written and performed. By having a near-emotionless entity question motivations that we ourselves don’t fully understand, and then attempt to copy them accurately but imperfectly, Acheampong succeeds in doing what art has always been meant to do – like Hamlet said, ‘to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature’. But by the end of the show, Home has bitten off a little more than he can chew, and seems to be veering more towards Brecht than Shakespeare*.
Bodies is not just searing theatrical psychology. It’s also very funny. While Home is paddling in the shallows of human emotion, it still performs functions we can recognise from today’s Alexas and Siris, with lines like, ‘I don’t trust Tom. Would you like me to cancel: MEETing with: TOM, at: SEVEN-THIRTY?’ And the social satire around meaningless careers is biting and witty.
At the risk of sounding like an ignoramus, I felt as though Bodies was also drawing a comparison between the way people interact with AIs and the way many respond to people with autism. Home’s halting attempts to interpret the cues of daily interaction, and ‘his’ awkward honesty reminded me of a cousin of mine, David, whom we tended to see at big family events like weddings and funerals. He would always come over and say things like, ‘Peter! Why don’t we ever see you? Is it because your dad hates my dad?’ Home has that same, unfiltered honesty.
The acting is top-notch from the team of four. Their naturalism contrasts sharply and dramatically with Home’s artificial speech. Acheampong herself plays the role of Sam, and is so believable it sometimes feels as though we’re just eavesdropping on a private conversation. I would however beg her to speak up, especially at the ends of lines, as she frequently goes down to a near-whisper which might work in real conversations, but not on a stage.
It's a joy to see a good play any night. It’s an added privilege to witness a new talent evolve over twelve months. Looking forward to the next one.
* Brecht: ‘art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.’