We open on a reversed environmental crisis. Animals are seemingly threatening humans with ruin at the hands of a deadly disease. The result is a dystopian purge of all wildlife, domesticated animals, the torching of London’s parks, the blocking of its roads and the enforcing of curfews on its hysterical (human) civilians.
We must reconsider our current destructive relationship with a natural world currently in crisis
However, in what is perhaps a reflection of our current post-truth politics, in CUADC’s production of Stef Smith’s Human Animals nothing is clear-cut. There is an all-consuming, anxiety-provoking lack of clarity about who the real aggressor is, man or beast. Could it be that this is a crisis exploited, or even manufactured, by business interests and an increasingly authoritarian government? Recorded voices, sometimes excerpts from radio interviews, some real, some fake, bounce around the room and immerse the audience in a mixture of genuine current affairs, confusing contradictions, disorienting illusions, hypnotic repetitions and apocalyptic noises. In a gripping hour we meet the individuals trapped in the middle of this cataclysm. We witness their very few, crumbling connections with others, in an existence which curtails like animals in a zoo.
Jamie and Lisa’s lustful relationship disintegrates due to their conflicting views on their reality. Their inability to resist one another, which is attributed to ‘pheromones or something’, proves to be a powerful questioning of human Exceptionalism, of whether there really is much difference between us and our furry counterparts. Through their relationship, as well as through the character of Alex the radical, we see the personal and the political collide, and an indictment of how people who oppose the status quo are branded maniacs.
Middle-aged neighbours John and Nancy, united by their pessimistic whimsy and genuine compassion for one another, struggle with ageing and loss. Emma Blacklay-Piech’s portrayal of Nancy is at times hilarious and at others heartbreaking, with perfect subtle shifts between the two. For a young actress, Blacklay-Piech impressively captures all the mannerisms, erraticisms, affectations and dry humour of an older woman with evocative precision. The dynamic between her and Will Bishop, who plays her closet-homosexual neighbour John, is the show’s highlight, and we leave feeling as if we’ve witnessed a genuine friendship between the two. Bishop coveys John’s struggles with a great tact, displaying his unshakeable bitterness and isolation with sensitivity. His relationship with Si, a greasily unsettling businessman played skilfully by Jamie Robson, is captivating, confusing and hostile.
CUADC does well to explore and compare the different interactions between these characters in quick succession and overlapping by spotlighting certain actors at certain points in time, while the whole ensemble is onstage. The space itself, much like the characters’ world, is claustrophobic, obfuscatory, overused, crowded yet isolated. Though the show suffers from dwindling pace at times, and a lack of focus borne out of its discussion of an overwhelming profusion of issues and information, brilliant performances and intelligent structure render it a powerful piece overall.
Crucially, What Human Animals tells us is that we must reconsider our current destructive relationship with a natural world currently in crisis, even if, as Lisa too familiarly admits, we ‘don’t have the time or the energy’. It also terrifyingly shows us how easy it is for society to fall apart. It bravely condemns the lack of honesty, the undercurrent of ulterior motives, and the fear-mongering greed which pervades our politics.