Cookie Jar, The Space, Livestream Broadcast – Review

Recently, actor James Earl Jones co-signed the use of his ‘Darth Vader’ voice to filmmakers, who will be able to use an AI algorithm to create new dialogue for future projects. Meanwhile another actor, Bruce Willis, has had to deny he sold his likeness to a ‘deepfake’ company. If that all sounds a bit far-fetched, think again. While cyber security measures often use face recognition technology, CGI has developed to the point where you can’t tell what is real and what isn’t, with deepfake porn its most notorious use…

Amy Wallace as Cam / All photos @aliwright_photographs

Written by Kiran Benawra and directed by Bettina Paris, Abeille Theatre’s production of Cookie Jar has a surfeit of ideas and predictions for the way that AI and technology will continue to shape identity and work practices. Set in the aftermath of a TV presenter’s suicide, we meet Cam (Amy Wallace) who has the daunting task of ‘filling the shoes’ of the late Layla Cabell.

Director and TV host: Kathryn Bond and Amy Wallace

From the off, Cam is told by the boss of Cookie Jar Media – Jupiter (David Bibby) – that she’s working for a “quirky media company”, which is supposed to pre-emptively explain the myriad of strange things she’ll encounter. However, even by media standards, there’s no end to the surprises down the ‘rabbit hole’…

“You must have a cookie to enter…”: Jupiter (David Bibby)

Within Benawra’s script, there are many different ideas about the shape of things to come and what will (or is) deemed acceptable in the name of entertainment. Some – like Cam not being allowed to enter the building until she’s had a ‘cookie’ – are played humorously, but ‘on the nose’ with its specificity. Then there are other examples such as the idiom ‘put your face on’, used to denote women putting on make-up. Within the play, that is literally the case, when through technology, an artificial face is created for Cam when she’s presenting. The reasoning behind it is to “protect her” from anyone using her image for deepfake porn (what ‘officially’ drove Layla to suicide), but that’s not the real reason. Once again, gaslighting is used to deflect attention from the real agenda.

Bricks (Kathryn Bond) speaks with Tiles (Jadene Renee Prospere)

Other notable characters in the play include Tiles (Jadene Renee Prospere) – an intern at Cookie Jar and Layla’s best friend. If at first she seems ‘frosty’ to Cam, it’s because she has a better idea than most about ‘what happens next’… Then there’s Bricks (Kathryn Bond) – who directs the shows and oversees the technical aspects of the programmes. She’s there to make sure Cam’s face doesn’t “fall off” during recording. As previously mentioned, Jupiter is the ‘boss’ (or at the least the most senior executive to regularly visit the studio). The ‘quirkiness’ of the company could be said to be about himself really, and at times the funniest of all the characters. However, his ‘keen interest’ in Cam and ‘progress’ could be interpreted in many different ways.

L-R: Nadège Nguyen, Amy Wallace, Jadene Renee Prospere, Kathryn Bond

If Cam is on Jupiter’s radar, so is Netty (Nadège Nguyen). As the person in charge of audience interaction and data analysis, she’s the one who knows if Cam is a big hit with all the demographics, or whether the charisma of Cam’s CGI persona is only ‘skin deep’. The person who makes the most surprising ‘appearance’ of all is Layla (or rather an AI program owned by Cookie Jar), supposedly based on her personality, memories and voice patterns. There is something perturbing about a company owning ‘you’ post-death, like they really do possess you “to infinity and beyond”.
Under Paris’s direction, there is a balance maintained between the darker, more thought-provoking aspects of Cookie Jar, with levity inspired by Cam’s surreal circumstances. Certainly as plays go, there is room to further explore the ideas it touches on, with its prescient take on intrusive technology branded as ‘protection’.

Cookie Jar is very much a Black Mirror episode brought to the stage, with its apprehensive take on our present technology and hinting at how such tools can be abused – especially by those who have a modicum of power. During the advent of photography, it was purported that some people declined to have their picture, for fear of stealing their ‘soul’. Now we are at the point where celebrities’ images on Apple phones are routinely hacked and shared online, and our data is owned by social media giants, marketing firms and conglomerates of every description. But there are no answers to this – unless you want to live ‘off the grid’, away from technology altogether…

© Michael Davis 2022

Cookie Jar ran at The Space Arts Centre from 27th September to 1st October. It will also be available on demand online on 15th October.

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