📍 The Space, 269 Westferry Road, London, E14 3RS
🗓 Wednesday 16th August 2023
THOUGHT PROVOKING AND ETHICALLY CHALLENGING
On Wednesday I headed to The Space in East London to watch Jacob Kay and Helen Baird’s Highrise, rather poignantly passing the stark, glass skyscrapers of Canary Wharf on the way.
The play begins with the voice of Cassandra, played by Helen Baird, who we soon learn is an AI helper for Pepperjack, a human in charge of maintaining a section of a highrise building who is played by Jacob Kay. Through the speakers, Cas sets out the routine of the day. We then meet Pepperjack, who is sat struggling to understand the details of a swimming pool manual.
Pepperjack is clearly very lonely, seemingly trapped in this highrise building without being allowed to venture outside and without any concept of time. He is unhealthily relying on Cas to fulfil his emotional needs as well as practical, treating her like a friend.
At first, their conversations are stilted, with Cas not picking up on the natural social queues in the way that a human would. As the play progresses, though, we see Cas evolve emotionally. She appears to get jealous when Pepperjack is watching a woman using the swimming pool, and she gets paranoid, confused and afraid when Pepperjack seems to retreat away from her. He does this after experiencing an injury that he suspects Cas inflicted and when he realises that she doesn’t want him to venture into the outside world.
Despite Pepperjack’s newfound resentment of Cas, her ability to trap and control him continues and even intensifies as the play goes on. We eventually learn that she even has the ability to infiltrate his mind, altering his feelings, memories and emotions.
For me, Highrise not only demonstrates the potentially destructive and ethically concerning nature of our reliance on AI and machines, but it goes one step further than that and causes us to ponder what happens when machines develop emotions. What happens when the boundary between humans and machines gets blurred?
I found myself invested in these characters from the outset, intrigued about where they would end up. This is no mean feat for a runtime of just one hour. But there were a few concepts throughout that I found a bit confusing and I felt could have been explained a little better. Where were all the other humans, for example? Why is Pepperjack unable to go outside? Does the fact that Pepperjack has to maintain the highrise building add to the story? I’d be interested to see if having a different, more relatable setting would have made the plot even more impactful for the average human audience member than it is already.
I also felt that the play could have ended a few scenes earlier than it had. For me, the story comes to a very natural crescendo when Pepperjack reaches the pinnacle of his despair. This, in my opinion, would have made a natural end to the play and I don’t think it would have done any harm to end on a bit more ambiguity.
Having said that, if that had been the case, we wouldn’t have gotten to see Cas become her most human. To be honest, I feel that rewatching the play, knowing the outcome, would help me to better unpick my thoughts about the ending.
If you’re interested in AI and our relationship with machines, I would definitely recommend going to see this play. It’ll invite you to ponder big questions and new perspectives about the impact of advancing technology.
Highrise is on at The Space until Saturday 19th August, 2023. Book your tickets here. https://space.org.uk/event/highrise/
To help me write this review, I listened to the podcast episode of Space Chats where Jacob Kay and Helen Baird discuss Highrise in more detail. And I’d really recommend that anyone watching the play also listens to this afterwards.
All views are my own and I pride myself on being honest and free from influence.
My ticket for this performance of Highrise was gifted by Helen Baird who invited me to watch the show in exchange for my honest review. The fact that my ticket was gifted played no part in the star rating given or the content of my review.
Warning: this performance contains bad language and themes of suicide.