The Queen Mary Theatre Company promotes Auto-Nation as a story inspired by the humanitarian crisis caused by Hurricane Katrina. The play draws upon this real life event, using a fictional natural disaster to focus on the concerning use of number-crunching and automation in dealing with tragedy.
The play begins with four workers at a prison sitting around having a quite natural conversation. Suddenly, one is reprimanded by a mask-wearing performer giving a robotic (in a good way) performance as the android Karen. This machine comes equipped with many features, such as an argument settlement module, control over the utilities at the prison and the ability to enact punishment on employees who don’t pull their weight. Throughout the 45 minute performance, Karen parrots corporate slogans for the parent company that owns and operates the prison. These messages are meant to provide some reassurance to the workers and residents of the prison that they will be looked after. However, as the story progresses, you realise that Karen’s primary function is not to help those trapped in the prison but to protect her corporate overlord creators.
The performance tries to create an uneasy feeling in the audience’s reliance on automation in everyday life, similar to the themes explored in Black Mirror. The story does have four very different characters, however they seem oversimplified and lack authenticity. The natural disaster they are riding from is also quite vague. While this can be purposeful, in this instance it leaves unanswered questions and ambiguity about the character’s motivations. This creates a story lacking in character development, within a world that has not been fully developed for the audience. both of which are necessary to create any interest in the story.
Although strong messages on the dangers of privatisation of public services and the reliance on artificial intelligence do come through in this piece, the direction and story construction hamper a great idea, smothering what should be a more powerful show.