Review: Neural Notwerks

Alex Sorgo 23 January 2018

Billed as Cambridge theatre’s “first ever computer-generated performance”, Ben Martineau and Jay Carpenter’s Neural Notwerks did not disappoint. Structured as a series of sketches based on passages produced on stage by a computer, the show provided a lively, well-paced and unexpectedly hilarious experience. Although the ensemble cast and emcee (a role taken up admirably by Ben Martineau) took some time to warm up – with a few awkward pauses filled by suspiciously canned laughter from sympathetic audience members – once they did, they managed their scenes with great enthusiasm and energy.

Pleasingly, the cast was very good and displayed impressive improvisational talent, breathing life and laughter into otherwise nonsensical passages. Particular congratulations must go to the intrepid theatrical debutants among them, and of course Camdram veterans such as Charlotte Cromie and Comrie Saville-Ferguson (oh look, an anagram!). It must be admitted, however, that the real star of the show was the computer or, more precisely, the texts that it produced. Having been trained on various popular texts (Harry Potter, the Bible, Fifty Shades of Grey and other such classics…), the computer was able to generate extracts which displayed remarkable fidelity to the vocabulary, style and rhythms of the originals. This was surprisingly unsettling – though the extracts may have seemed deceptively coherent at first, closer attention revealed they made very little sense. The closest comparison is perhaps best made with an amusing, rather surreal YouTube video featuring an infamous pineapple, which purports to recreate what English sounds like to non-English speakers (which is, as it turns out, more than a bit like Simlish).

Particular literary gems included: “I moved the beauty, revealing the floor” (Fifty Shades), “I’ll go with me” (Shakespeare), “the train stood up suddenly” (Harry Potter) and my personal favourite: “add 1/8th of a teaspoon of salt, followed by salt, salt, more salt and finally, salt and pepper” (…delicious!). As I write this review, it is difficult to tell whether any of these examples are still funny from the reader’s perspective – but the show itself certainly was funny, and elicited a broad spectrum of laughs (from coy giggling at perceived innuendos to outbursts of actual cackling). Stand-out sketches included a ‘Star Wars Factory (TM)’ ideas-pitching session; an apathetic teacher reading a particularly obtuse passage of Shakespeare with her class (the actors in this scene were truly excellent) and a wildly inappropriate Fifty Shades book club.

Does the success of this show mean that aspiring writers at HATCH, Smorgasbord and, dare I say, even the august institution of The Marlowe Writer’s Group should be quivering in their boots? Well, not really. What the show managed to do, somewhat paradoxically, was to reaffirm the richness and power of human creativity and expression. This holds true both of the performers and the audience. Observing the cast, it was clear that it was their control over pacing, body language and tone which imbued the texts with humour and indeed, as much meaning as could be squeezed out from them. From the audience’s point of view, it was our own relentless quest to find sense in the strings of words presented that layered the text with irony, satirical significance and (let us all be honest with ourselves here) a veritable cornucopia of dirty jokes.

The text produced by the computer – I would personally resist using the word ‘written’ – was in many cases, meaningless, salvaged only by the imposition of often ingenious, and heroically strained, human interpretation. As Mr. Martineau noted in his preview in the Other Newspaper, we are hard-wired to search unceasingly for order in our otherwise chaotic existences (and I don’t just mean your attempts to tackle the three overdue essays and dissertation draft you have yet to hand in this week). It is our own taking up of this involuntary and inescapable interpretive role, which, funnily enough, feeds the illusion of computer-generated creativity.

Neural Notwerks shows that while systems such as neural networks may replicate, sometimes even with uncanny accuracy, creative works, this provides only a bare framework upon which we ourselves impose further meaning. Can a computer write poetry? “Tis but the ecstasy of death”, reads one striking extract…but it seems to me that poetry is found in the eye of the beholder – a computer may extract raw patterns from the chaos, but it is the human mind that attempts to make sense of it. We’ll call a truce: perhaps in future, collaboration between man and machine will open up new, and as yet unknown, avenues for creating and interpreting art.