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Theatre: ‘Not One of These People’

Image credit: Carla Chable de la Héronnière

Martin Crimp’s experiment in dramatic form explicitly presents the playwright as a puppeteer, making apt use of live deepfake video-generation technology.

Dramatist Martin Crimp is known for plays with unconventional structures that prompt questions about the dramatic process. Now, he takes to the stage for the first time, directed by Christian Lapointe and supported by a cast which does not exist.

‘Not One of These People’, which came to London’s Royal Court Theatre for three nights in early November in a co-production with Québec City’s Carte Blanche and Carrefour international de théâtre, is based around use of deepfakes: media (in this case, images and videos of faces) generated using artificial intelligence. It begins with static StyleGAN-style portraits projected onto a gauze while Crimp reads their dialogue off-stage. As Crimp joins them on stage, they begin to blink, frown and eventually ‘speak’ alongside him like uncanny ventriloquist’s dummies.

In all, 299 different characters appear and disappear, sometimes almost second by second. There is no narrative; only semi-connected snatches of dialogue from this seemingly endless sequence of characters. The play is packed with sparkling and provocative one-liners (at times, the presentation of these oddball characters with their non sequiturs, all voiced by Crimp, is reminiscent of 'A Bit of Fry and Laurie'’s vox pop sketches).

‘Not One of These People’ primarily aims to explore ‘appropriation’. What are the ethical implications of dramatists like Crimp inventing voices, stories and personalities for people utterly unlike themselves? By using deepfakes rather than real actors, Crimp ventriloquises other people on a scale that would be otherwise impossible. The hundreds of nameless people – representing all genders and ethnicities, often monologuing about experiences specific to those identities – being turned into puppets for the dramatist in real time is a striking, discomforting image.

The audience is also prompted to consider the process of inventing a character on the basis of nothing more than an AI-generated face. Do some faces look necessarily more prudish, anxious, introspective, slovenly, than others? More like they might steal their daughter’s boyfriend, perhaps, or watch Jordan Peterson lectures on YouTube?

Another theme returned to throughout the play is lying; characters deceive their partners, families and strangers for all sorts of reasons, sometimes for the sheer fun of it. One is reminded of a pre-Facebook age in which it was the norm, rather than the exception, for internet users to pretend to be whoever they desired online. Today, deepfakes exactly like these are used to put a trustworthy face to spam accounts flogging cryptocurrencies, romance scams and disinformation.

There is more than a hint of that terrible era of lockdown theatre about ‘Not One of These People’ being mostly conveyed via screen. In this case, however, the digital elements are used in a genuinely imaginative way relevant to the themes of the play.

However, the combined lack of narrative, visual interest and a diversity of voices make it very difficult to justify the 100-minute run time; 60 would be plenty. More performance art than a play, ‘Not One of These People’ might have been better suited to a live installation at the Tate Modern.

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