REVIEW: Assembly Required

Assembly Required, directed by Conal Clapper from a script by Jonathan M. Daley, is familiar in plot but distinctively grim, visual and intelligent in nature, the old adage of artificial intelligence possibly not being so artificial after all shaken up and refreshed by Headrush Ireland for the Lyric Theatre audience. Punctuated by Katie Richardson's ethereal compositions on Tracey Lindsay's sleek, compact and relatively modernised living room of a set, the premise features the arrival of an android as an opportunity for and a threat to domestic bliss.

Rob, played with quiet command by Elliot Lloyd, doesn't want to move in with his girlfriend Mia, played affectingly by Ciara Mackey. It's not that Rob doesn't love Mia or doesn't want to be with her – it's that he doesn't want to mess things up. Immediately a can of worms far larger than anything Lester or Carolyn Burnham could come up with is opened – does Rob even know how to love Mia anymore? 

Worse, it is doubtful Mia remembers how she first loved Rob. Her priorities is trying to look her best as she battles the haunting voices she keeps on hearing. What is madness to one is pain to the other, the male's image of perfection broken down by reality, the female's image of herself torn apart by confusion. 

Enter the robotic Ali, played by Debra Hill in one of the year's best performances so far. Creepy and compelling not only in her poses but also in transcending her Alexa-esque default setting with alarming pace, Ali is warm and cold at once, the alleged answer to Mia's every need and a fearful mirror to our culture and its dependence on technology. Uniquely therapeutic to Rob as well as Mia, Ali is a new kind of companion, fresh-faced, perky and ideal for the momentary pleasure one so superficially desires. While a poorly, weary Mia is increasingly reminiscent of what could have been but isn't.

Yet, thanks to Hill's especially impressive turn, Ali also elicits remarkable sympathy. She speaks to ideas and ideals in AI itself, and, likewise, to those who feel like they exist not to take control but to be controlled. She's an example of machinic efficiency turned the epitome of mental health, joyful, like we are, at her discovery of dance, but agonised by never being able to fit in as she wishes to. And are her desires, or indeed, Rob's and Mia's desires, truly theirs, or a product of everything they have observed and mimicked in the course of development? That ever-thinning line between the genuine and manufactured, which can't be emphasised enough, is portrayed memorably by Hill, Lloyd and Mackey as a strain on and manipulation of the senses, controlled innocence and uncontrollable reactions. A state of mind where our characters must scream but can't.

What I find most admirable about Assembly Required is the bizarre strain of optimism which emerges from this bleakness, the inspiring message that love is partly about learning to move beyond the image of the protective fantasy which cannot and will not last. It is an underplayed tale of caution, a presentation of contemporary relationships as what our companions and friends can always do for us rather than what we can do for them. Where everyone may turn into a pawn for each other on the way to a dangerously sterile game of draughts, but not if the Robs and Mias of this world can find the flexibility, acknowledgement and open-mindedness to understand our Alis, understand themselves, and play their way out of trouble. And one can certainly be thankful of the play's timely and stirring reminder that a positive resolution is still possible.

Simon Fallaha

Assembly Required ran at the Lyric Theatre's Naughton Studio, in Belfast, from July 3 to 6. Photos by Jonathan Daley and Conor McGuinness.

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