The concept of performance is an inherently man-made construct. So are the pretences of certain realities that we as humans have chosen to adopt and mandated ourselves to live by – money, or the law, are followed because we actively validate their existence in the need to impose order onto nature. All of this is established as a prologue to Secret Life of Humans, a play that effortlessly fuses scientific premise, philosophical debate and creative innovation to question why we are driven in the ways that we are.
David Byrne’s astonishing script takes a lot of inspiration from Yuval Harari’s novel, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”. Through a series of interpersonal relationships, he calls into question the pillars upon which we have constructed our society, raising ourselves out of the dirt onto what we may consider a higher evolutionary plane. It centres around public scientist and TV presenter, Dr Jacob Bronowski (Richard Delaney), known for both his work on fire-raising during the Second World War and his TV series “The Ascent of Man”, who also kept a locked room in his house that no one entered until after he died. The lucky two to unlock the secrets are affable, if dim, grandson Jamie (Andrew Strafford-Baker), on his first date with academic Ava (Stella Blue Taylor).
Violence is our most pronounced vestigial trait. But we amplify it a thousand-fold as part of our superiority – we exert our influence through violence not only on every other species, but within ourselves as well. It is used as the yardstick by which we measure our alpha-dominance, our intra-species hierarchy. And yet, despite its atrocity, Byrne and co-director Kate Stanley manage to highlight the beauty in its ultimate destruction. Narratively, they culminate Bronowski’s research in a horrifying attack that wipes out thousands of German civilians; visually, they emphasise a highly evocative sequence through projection and lighting and composition, which artistically queries our attempt to justify the necessity of such horrendous loss of life.
Conceptually and visually, Secret Life of Humans is fluid and flawless. The script itself, mainly carried along by Ava (Taylor) in the style of an informative, unmissable lecture, flows seamlessly from scene to scene without any sense of awkward pause or break. The direction is flexible and yet precise – no aspect of the overall show missed out or ill-chosen. This production has clearly benefitted from extensive development and boasts a cohesive vision across all creative aspects. Zakk Hein’s projection is particularly powerful, combining with Yaiza Varona’s composition to add evocative colour and nuance in even the smallest of emphatic monologues. Geoff Hense’s lighting design highlights snippets of detail and adds depth and layering to an already complex show, even down to the subtle silhouettes of a dead grandfather watching over his grandson in the room where he locked away his darkest secrets.
The character relationships are well-defined and easily bought into. Central to the story is simple, harmless Jamie (Strafford-Baker), desperate for someone to connect with in a world where he is becoming increasingly isolated. Strafford-Baker is the beating heart of this piece, the emotional honesty that cuts through cold, intellectual pursuits. Ava (Taylor) by contrast is externally warm but internally devoid of empathy, choosing instead to expose any slushy, visceral reaction for what it is – a reactive, impulsive decision borne not of considered thought but of rash judgement. Micro-reactions to sentimental statements posed by Jamie exemplify her somewhat patronising demeanour in a magnetic clashing of personalities.
But it is Dr Bronowski (Delaney) who gives the most powerful performance here, in a desperate attempt to justify his actions through a public documentary celebrating man’s triumphs and achievements. Delaney’s performance is strained yet restrained at all times, so in tune with the underlying conflicts his character possesses, but that are pushed aside in the pursuit of intellectual stimulation. World War Two was an atrocity – Delaney’s final lines are an attempt to rekindle our love for ourselves and note that the future belongs to those of us that can most successfully do so.
Secret Life of Humans is full of depth, artistic merit and intellectual passion – it juggles so many aspects and keeps them perfectly in balance. With characters that literally walk on the walls, the audience perspective is that of Gods, a bird’s eye-look upon our more primitive, earlier selves striking out below. Byrne and Stanley seem to achieve the impossible – they take a philosophical construct and breathe creative life into it, giving us a story that we buy in to but also question our place in. This is intellectually, visually and creatively astounding work.
Secret Life of Humans plays Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017 until 28 August 2017. For more information or to purchase tickets, click here.
Follow the link to an interview with writer,David Byrne.