Interview with Marjorie Prime’s Tony Jayawardena

Posted on 27 February 2023

What does it mean to be human in the modern age? Set in a world where technology has advanced to the point of creating lifelike holograms that help ease our grief and despair, Jordan Harrison's latest thought-provoking production, Marjorie Prime (at the Menier Chocolate Factory) asks difficult questions about what it means to be human and whether artificial intelligence can ever truly replace the human experience.

We caught up with star of Marjorie PrimeTony Jayawardena, whose distinguished career in theatre has included appearances in The Tempest, and East is East. He also has an impressive list of television credits to his name, such as Ackley Bridge and The Crown. Here, he talks about all things rehearsals, how he prepared for his role in Marjorie Prime and what he thinks about the story.

You’re in the middle of rehearsals, how is it going? 

Tony: It’s going great actually, it’s lovely. When there are four people, you can’t help but be in each other's faces and spaces all the time, so it means that it’s really important that they’re all nice. Dominic [Dromgoole, Director] has put together a lovely quartet and the play that Jordan Harrison has written is really smart, modern, fast-paced and witty. 

The 'prime' in the title is a hologram of a person that's passed away. It’s an incredibly interesting idea for a story. The moral dilemma, how does it work? 

It’s predicting a time when you might be able to have a holographic projection of a lost loved one. They can come back in any kind of form you want. We meet Anne Reid’s character Marjorie, she’s 85 years old and talking to a man in his 30s, it's her husband but it's a holographic projection of her husband, and she's chosen to have him in his 30-year-old form as opposed to the age that he was when he died. 

She’s suffering from a form of dementia and it’s part of a programme to keep her grounded in reality. Nancy Caroll's character Tess and my character John, I’m Tess’s husband and Tess is Marjorie's daughter. Just imagine if you are the daughter of that lost loved one and you’re coming home every day to find that 30-year-old version of your father in the house…it’s totally strange and weird. 

The primes only know as much as you tell them, they know about themselves from the information they get from you, it’s not an exact replica of your loved one either - so there’s always the slight disconnect. You know, as intelligent as it is, it can’t ever truly replace the human that’s been lost.

Greif is a fascinating subject.

Absolutely. My mother passed away in 2015. That was the first time I think I lost anyone who was that close to me. Having spoken to a lot of other people who have suffered similar losses over the last few years it’s an incredibly hard thing to deal with, also it's an incredibly unspoken thing.

How do we remember them? What person are we left with? Does it matter in the grand scheme of things what kind of comfort and solace you get? What’s the most important thing after someone passes away? These are all incredibly difficult topics of conversation and they are topics that are rarely talked about. 

As you are playing the son-in-law, your character must see things from a different perspective than the other two characters.

That’s absolutely right. I guess my character's role is to see the benefits of having artificial intelligence in the house. I want it to be the best and the most helpful and of course, I have the freedom to feel that way and to look at it from the perspective of somebody who's not going through unbelievable grief, so it's great. You’ve got the point of view of somebody who's really suffering and somebody who’s really detached and trying to see this as a helpful thing. 

What do you love most about your character? Does he support? Is he the practical eye on it? 

Marjorie,  the mother-in-law hasn’t always liked Jon, in the early days, they talk about how she didn’t like the length of his beard, and how she didn’t like his politics! Now he’s getting on really well with her because he’s not treating her like someone who needs to be taken care of or mothered. 

What I like about my character is that he’s genuinely just a really nice guy but he’s also got this great relationship with Tess, some of the conversations and dialogue between Tess and John are fantastic and electric and naturalistic, so you can get really fast rhythms. It’s lovely as an actor to be able to speak those rhythms and have those conversations, especially with Nancy Caroll because she’s incredible.

I know you’re still in rehearsals, but do you have any favourite moments so far?

The prime that I described at the beginning, which is Marjorie's husband and Tess’s dad is not the only prime we meet in the play. With each prime that we meet, there are a couple more, there’s another level of story, possibly another level of grief and another level of heartbreak. It goes deeper and deeper - there are a few beautiful moments. 

How are you preparing yourself for this role? What sort of background have you done, what sort of back story have you given him, have you read about grief?

Other than my own personal relationship with grief, no, we haven’t done a huge amount, we sat around a table and we’ve talked to each other. We’ve all got stories of grief, everyone in that room. So we’ve connected with each other as human beings. 

What is fantastic about Jordan’s writing is that it doesn’t need a great deal of embellishment, what it needs is to sing for itself. It’s really that good. You don’t need to come at it with a certain angle or background, you just need to relate to a certain person in the room and speak truthfully and honestly. It’s also quite scary because you don’t have a lot to hide behind, the truthfulness of the words does everything you need. 

Will people relate to the feelings of grief and find it cathartic?

Absolutely, I’m telling certain friends about the subject matter, because it will be painful and I don’t want people to be caught blindsided, but it's a really healthy examination, it’s not done flippantly, it’s done thoughtfully and honestly with a lot of heart and a lot of love. 

If you were going to sum it up to somebody, what is your strapline, what would you put on the side of a bus, why are you telling them to come? 

Well, what I’d put on the side of a bus and what I’d tell my friends are two different things. What I’d put on the side of a bus is ‘artificial intelligence in our homes, is this another member of the family?’ but to my friends, ‘it’s a really intelligent, witty, funny, intelligent study of grief, end of life and relationships’. It’s hard, but it’s worth it and it’s only going to be 80 minutes long, which is even better. Zipping straight through so we can all have a nice drink later!

Marjorie Prime tickets are available now!

Technology blurs the lines between reality and memory in Marjorie Prime. Through captivating storytelling, expertly crafted performances, and an exploration of our difficult relationship with technology, this production leaves you wondering…if given the opportunity to remember the past, would you take it?

Kevin Thomas

By Kevin Thomas

From as early as I can recall, writing has always been my passion. Being able to combine this with my love for theatre has been a rewarding and exhilarating experience. I truly believe that there is magic in seeing a story brought to life on stage, and this is what I would like to promote to audiences.