Where does the journey of human history begin? Where does the unshakeable quest for human survival come from? How did Homo sapiens come to dominate the earth? And will the quest for world domination eventually destroy us? In David Byrne’s Secret Life of Humans, based on Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, we are made to confront this timeline of human evolution, and the possibility of a devastating outcome.
Although weaving sociology and anthropology throughout its narrative, Secret Life of Humans is basically a philosophical statement about how we humans, irrespective of all our global accomplishments, might just decide to destroy it all.
It’s appropriate then that its central character, the British mathematician Jacob ‘Bruno’ Bronowski (Richard Delaney) is someone who is forced to make a choice between greater and lesser evils in World War II.
The Bronowski we are introduced to in Secret Life of Humans, is a forward-thinking polymath, historian of science, family man, and TV presenter of a popular series, The Ascent of Man. In a past life, however, he also had a secret mission that was carefully concealed from his family – his work with the War Office to develop mathematical calculations to maximise civilian deaths in bombing raids in World War II. It is assumed that Bronowski’s war-time contributions were indirectly responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of individuals, such as the bombing campaign of Dresden in 1945.
But then, the multifarious character of Bronowski is an appropriate premise for the play. Like a double helix, there is woven into the human psyche a constructive impulse, comfortably wrapped around a destructive one. This premise is also mirrored in the relationship between Bruno Bronowski’s gullible grandson Jamie (Andrew Stafford-Baker), and the self-seeking opportunist Ava (Stella Taylor).
Co-directors David Byrne and Kate Stanley would do well to tease out the implications of Ava’s treacherous behaviour, and to reveal something in Jamie’s character that hints at why he does not toss her from the window of his dead mother’s flat. Without discussing a pivotal plot point, certainly Ava’s justification for her betrayal of Jamie: I don’t live in a big house. I’m not the one to lose my job, my career, everything. I’ll do whatever I need to do, puts her reasoning on an equal footing with the German officers who presided over the death camps in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.
Personally, the boy meets girl, boy loses girl aspect of Secret Life of Humans weakens the piece. Do we really need a scheming, self-promoting female to shed light on the mystery of a locked room and its contents? In real life, it was Bronowski’s daughter, the historian Lisa Jardine, who came across the top-secret documents that revealed her father’s contribution to the aerial bombings of civilian populations in World War II.
Where the male/female encounter does work, however, is with the character of Rita Bronowski (Olivia Hirst) with her simple, pure love of her husband, Bruno. Rita is the only flesh and blood character in the play who is not burdened with delivering a text-book premise of the human condition. This in no way diminishes the beauty of the writing, just that academia in its natural home leads to a deadening of the senses.
It must be noted, however, that Secret Life of Humans is deliciously wicked in its presentation of split time-frames, with actors walking gingerly across walls, reminiscent of the origin of the species and our initial descent from trees, juxtaposed by actors speaking from centre stage. I still can’t figure out how they maintained their balance, even though I was aware that wires were supporting them (John Maddox, aerial design).
There was also a sense of fun in the fluidity of the set design (Jen McGinley), which moves swiftly and gracefully to connect stories from the present, past, and dawn of human history. Like an aperture that opens and closes, pieces appear and disappear, under cover of Cat Webb’s sophisticated lighting. In fact, the entire play is bathed in the light of mathematical magic, just like Bruno Bronowski.
Review by Loretta Monaco
In 1949, Dr Jacob Bronowski installs a secret, alarmed room in his house. Fifty years later his grandson discovers his secrets, unearthing echoes from across six million years of human history, told from the perspective of a century in which every year is a revolutionary year.
Following a sell-out, award-winning run at the Edinburgh Festivals, New Diorama present the London premiere of their brand new show, Secret Life of Humans, written and co-directed by David Byrne.
Secret Life of Humans is a co-production between New Diorama Theatre and Greenwich Theatre. The production is supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England, The Cockayne Foundation, and PRS For Music Foundation.
Secret Life of Humans
Tue 10 April – Sat 5 May 2018