New Diorama Theatre – humanity, love and more on stage in the Secret Life of Humans:
Secret Life of Humans is a play in which many strands are woven together to address fundamental questions about humanity, love, loyalty, ambition, science, progress and the future of our species. The play is described as inspired by Yuval Noah Harari’s bestselling book, Sapiens A Brief History Of Humankind. Devotees of the book will be gratified to recognise ideas transposed from the page on to the stage, while also noting that Harari’s surprising page-turner of the history of Homo Sapiens is but a launching pad for the creative mind of playwright David Byrne, who co-directs the play with Kate Stanley.
The play neatly interweaves a number of relationships, cutting backwards and forwards in time. Contemporary relationships via Tinder are starkly contrasted with a long marriage and a hidden gay partnership. We even see the footprints of a relationship dating back 6 million years. In the present we have a couple, Jamie and Ava, meeting on a date, having swiped on their mobile phones to make the connection. They become very drunk and land up having a one night stand. Jamie is grieving the recent loss of his mother, while Ava is grieving the loss of her job and livelihood. It transpires that Jamie is the grandson of Jacob Bronowski, mathematician and historian of science renowned for his series The Ascent of Man; Ava has more than a passing academic interest in the man and his work. When she discovers the sexual encounter has taken place in the same house as Bronowski’s famed, locked and alarmed room, she persuades Jamie to allow her to open sealed boxes and files, thereby unlocking both State and family secrets hitherto undiscovered. The play delves back into the past, introducing the relationship between Jacob and his wife, Rita, herself grieving her husband’s sudden death. She keeps a conversation alive with her dead husband, a device reminiscent of some wonderful scenes with Juliette Stevenson in Truly, Madly, Deeply.
The theme of secrets runs like a seam through the play as the title suggests. State secrets, secrets kept from family and partners, secret desires and relationships that have to be kept secret are all portrayed.
In addition to these two themes, there is the weighty matter of the history of humanity and how we as a species have got to the present day. Harari’s thesis about the centrality of the Agricultural Revolution gets an airing in relation to understanding how humans, and Ava specifically, got to fear the loss of their livelihoods. Ava, in her role as an academic, represents not only Harari’s ideas but gets to critique Bronowski’s conclusions which, written in the 1970s, can be seen as a forerunner to Harari’s own exposition.
Moral dilemmas abound, chiefly about the use of science and maths – is maths a neutral subject or can all human endeavours be used for constructive or destructive purposes? When a Jewish mathematician uses his knowledge to hasten the defeat of Nazi Germany through his research into fire-raising, can he be said to be a liberator or complicit in the mass murder of thousands of civilians? Less weighty, contemporary dilemmas are raised about exploiting sexual encounters for one’s own purposes – Ava considers saving her academic career by publishing a new book on Bronowski, despite Jamie’s need to preserve his illusions about his grandfather.
The acting is consistently strong. Ava (Stella Taylor) and Jamie (Andrew Strafford-Baker) are wonderfully awkward on a first date and its aftermath; their drunken passion gives way to a frenzied search through the contents of Bronowski’s locked room. But once the genie is out of the bottle, the secrets they uncover drive a wedge between them. Bronowski (Richard Delaney) gives a strong performance, balancing his intellectual prowess with a childlike delight in his newfound fame as radio and television popularises his work and spreads his influence through the broadcasting of The Ascent of Man. Rita (Olivia Hirst) puts in a touching performance as his grieving widow who recalls how she first met Jacob as he posed as a nude model in her art class. George (Andy McLeod) amusingly portrays a mathematician in awe of Bronowski and charged with enlisting him to work on matters that can only be discussed after he has signed the Official Secrets Act. His relationship with his ‘roommate’ from Oxford has to remain hidden and his grief towards the end of the play is acted with great poignancy.
One of the most thrilling moments of the play takes place when the first known footprints are described. Suddenly an actor begins a slow walk across the back wall of the stage. Then another appears. It is mesmerising and an acrobatic feat. The back wall is also used to project archive footage which adds to the multimedia nature of the play.
Secret Life of Humans enjoyed a sell-out, award-winning run at the Edinburgh Festival and is now premiering in London. Anyone with an interest in good storytelling, as well as the history and future of humanity and the moral dilemmas we face in our lives and relationships, will enjoy this engaging performance.
Secret Life of Humans runs from 10 April – 5 May at the New Diorama Theatre, London NW1 3BF