Secret Life of Humans is a journey into the (hi)story of mankind, striking for its visual, critical, and ambitiously universal approach.
Bouncing in and out the contemporary story of Jamie and Ava and that of Jamie’s grandfather, Jacob “Bruno” Bronowski (1908-1974), the play scrutinises our lives both as individuals and as a members of the same species. Bronowski, a Cambridge mathematician and acclaimed author and TV presenter of the documentary The Ascent of Mankind, had himself a dark secret, which challenges the faith in progress of his own television series, and at the same time uncovers the most fundamental, primeval traits of us as human beings.
Dealing with present, recent past, vestigial past, and potential future, the play aspires to have a universal message, asking the question “What does it mean to be human?” Spanning from the origin of our species to insights into what the future may hold, we are presented at once with the history of mankind, the life story of a man of the twentieth century, and an evening of a date ending not so well. At times, this feels slightly too much to be contained into a single play, but most of the time the various threads of the plot are handled pretty well. I especially liked the lively, smart beginning, which hooks the audience straightaway – which is quite rare for a show to do so early on.
However, with the most burning question (Why did Bronowski did what he did?) left unanswered, I found it challenging to engage with the play’s deepest meaning as the show progressed. Of course, part of it is the idea that our motivations are not always fully understandable. The approach chosen by directors David Byrne (who’s also the script writer) and Kate Stanley is critical more than didactic. But rather than leaving us pondering various possible explanations, the play didn’t seem to gesture at any altogether. I felt I needed perhaps a few suggestions, in order to engage with the core message of Secret Life of Humans.
In all this, though, the astounding realisation ensures that the play is still one to remember. The acting is solid, engaging, at times genuinely heart-stopping. I was impressed with the credible awkwardness of Jamie (Andrew Strafford-Baker), and the strong personality of Ava (Stella Taylor). Remarkable is also Richard Delaney as Dr. Bronowski, who has perfected his voice to sound like a radio presenter from the 1950s.
In addition, what Secret Life of Humans seem to be doing best is the way it optimises the stage, with visual and theatrical bravery. The New Diorama Theatre has a fairly small stage, but the cast and creatives make the most of it, opening up an endless number of new dimensions, which conjure up not only several rooms within the same house, but also different temporal dimensions. Three movable bookshelves, shifted around the stage, are all it takes to create the perfect set, which complements a play that takes place fluidly between past and present.
Adding on to this are the powerful moments of ‘vertical walking’, where the actors cross the stage perpendicularly to the audience, promenading on the back wall. This gives the audience a literally new perspective, making us look at our fellow humans from a different angle. This, perhaps more than anything else, conveys the sense of common vestigial past and shared humanity.
Secret Life of Humans is playing at the New Diorama Theatre until May 5
Photo: David Monteith-Hodge