David Byrne’s The Secret Life of Humans is a captivating insight in to what it means to be part of human civilisation. Reflecting on the 'ascent of man' - to the complex, interconnected world we live in today. Adapted from Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, this collaboration between the New Diorama and Greenwich Theatre is a unique and charming play brimming with rich eloquent text and extremely clever stage craft.
This is a unique and charming play brimming with rich eloquent text and extremely clever stage craft.
University professor Ava (strongly played by Stella Taylor) is on the brink of losing everything until she meets Jamie (Andrew Strafford-Baker plays the role with an affable likability) on a casual Tinder date and he just happens to be the fictitious grandson of renowned scientist Dr. Jacob Bronowski. Luckily for Ava, the work of Dr. Bronowski (wonderfully played by Richard Delaney) is at the heart of her research.
Jamie is enamoured by the sharp and inquisitive Ava, especially her desire to find more about the man she has spent her entire career analysing. Her interest in Jamie is piqued when she discovers that Dr. Bronowski kept a secret, alarmed office that no one bar Bronoswki had ever entered. As Ava convinces Jamie to let her see what’s behind the door, a spool of hidden secrets is unravelled leaving Jamie wishing he never knew the real extent of what his grandfather’s brain was capable of.
Curiosity and a desire to learn pulses through Bryne’s script, weighing in the balance of whether science can ever be totally good or bad. It is these ethical issues that surround the work of the real life Dr. Bronowski, who in The Ascent of Man argued that there is no such thing as absolute knowledge, and those that claim it are just "opening the doors to tragedy".
Through the multiple narratives of Ava, Jamie, Dr. Bornoswki and wife Rita (Olivia Hirst), and their friend George (Andy McLeod) The Secret Life of Humans begins to unfold how love, relationships and connections have kept mankind alive for thousands of years. These themes are beautifully framed with the gorgeous projection design from Zakk Hein, photographs and videos of the late doctor mesmorisingly whirl around the cast throughout. John Maddox’s aerial design creates the illusion of the cast walking horizontally against the backdrop, another fantastic feat. It’s clear from the joint direction of Byrne and Kate Stanley that their goal was to emphasise the infinite possibilities of both science and art, and their clever use of the stage did this perfectly.
There are times when the fabrication of the script seems somewhat jarring, most particularly the believability of Ava and Jamie’s first date turning into a late night exposé of his grandfather’s personal archives. However, the company did a good job at adapting and theatrically devising Harari’s non-fiction book Sapiens…’ but the moments of implausibility need fine tuning.
Moreover, the revelations that Jamie discovers inside his grandfather’s locked office aren’t necessary as earth shattering as the play makes out. Instead they illuminate the core moral interrogation of how civilisation can utilise science for advancement rather than destruction, even if it means discovering some difficult home truths.