A young woman is screaming, howling, and contorting her body with rage as an unfazed group of hippies looks on. In a Californian commune, Kath is learning how to let go of her anger at the world’s injustices, and instead focus on her own spiritual journey. It’s a pivotal scene in much-respected director David Farr’s exhilarating play, one that pinpoints how a whole generation of boomers matured from ’70s radical protesters to wealth-hoarding individualists.
On its surface, ‘A Dead Body in Taos’ is an exploration of artificial intelligence, and the potential for a scientifically-assisted afterlife. And yes, there’s some impressively eerie science-dystopia stuff. But Farr’s masterstroke is to use these futuristic ideas to interrogate the past, through a strained mother-daughter relationship. Sam (Gemma Lawrence) hasn’t been able to forgive her mother Kath (Eve Ponsonby) for half-abandoning her as a teenager. So when Kath is found dead in the desert outside the New Mexico town of Taos, she’s matter-of-fact, not distraught. But soon she discovers that Kath isn’t so dead after all: she’s put her entire life savings into preserving herself as a prototype android, created by shadowy biotech facility FutureLife. What follows mixes flashbacks into Kath’s hippie quest for self-knowledge with Sam’s tortuous present-day journey to understand her robo-mum.
It could be confusing. But Farr’s script is expertly plotted and paced, and Rachel Bagshaw’s staging is brilliantly lucid, delivering the kind of seamlessly tech-heavy production that producer Fuel excels at. Designer Ti Green fills the stage with an ingenious assemblage of screens that sit surprisingly naturally amid the crumbling splendour of Wilton’s Music Hall. They display subtitles (in a welcome move towards inclusivity) as well as projections that shift the scene from desert to stark facility.
And Ponsonby’s standout performance does so much to tie this complex play together. She gives an uncanny valley, self-scan checkout girl quality to the undead Kath. The juxtaposition between her dead emotionless voice and the fraught conversations she’s having with her daughter is bleakly hilarious and painful, all at once.
Is this vastly expensive android the real Kath? Farr’s play gestures at the question without answering it, avoiding getting bogged down in unanswerable conundrums about the location of the soul, or more down-to-earth detail about how the androidification process actually works (it’s seemingly based on lengthy chats that resemble therapy sessions). The lack of scientific detail means that the ending risks tipping into magical realism, but that doesn’t nullify the story’s power.
Because really, this is a play about love and betrayal, and the way that selfishness clouds us to the needs of those closest to us. It’s Farr’s first play for over a decade (during which he’s written for ‘Spooks’ and adapted ‘The Night Manager’ for BBC1, among other things) – and it deserves an equally thrilling follow-up.