Human Animals

A bird crashes through the window and meets a brutal end, its blood smeared across the living room carpet. This is the first incident of violence in a play in which a previously-benign natural order has been upset; the soft bodies of foxes are discovered in the bushes, mice chew through their own veins, dead flies align on the window ledge and birds convene in terrifyingly large numbers. Amidst this unpleasantness lurks the increasingly pervasive, dangerous fear that humans will become infected by animals. As an epidemic of terror develops, parks are razed, creatures burned alive and civil liberties torched. Stef Smith explores human nature and all its repugnant adaptability, the fragility of relationships and the consequences of inertia as individuals become little more than voyeurs, incapable of preventing the erosion of their – or animal – rights.

Human Animals is powerful, funny and unfailingly original

Human Animals is powerful, funny and unfailingly original. The exploration of human nature through a microcosm of six individuals and their relationships with one another is a nice idea and it was generally well-realised by director Hamish Pirie. Natalie Dew gave a remarkable performance as the vulnerable but defiant Alex, who has recently returned home to her mother after a stint travelling. She represents the moral crux of the play; her youthful idealism (not to be confused with naivety) allows her to see clearly the hypocrisy and dubious ethics of an increasingly frightening scare campaign, even if she cannot stop it.

The friendship between Nancy (Stella Gonet) and John (Ian Gelder) was nuanced, sensitively-handled and important. It is unusual to see this sort of relationship depicted in the theatre (or any form) and cheering that older actors have access to parts in which they are more than a mere accessory to the leads. In Human Animals Nancy and John look after one another and share a tight bond, but a romantic veil never descends over the proceedings. How refreshing! Gonet and Gelder provided some moments of real comedy, particularly in the first half. All the actors performed well, though perhaps Ashley Zhangazha had the hardest time, as his role – Jamie – was slightly under-written.

However, the ensemble moments felt gratuitous and tacked on. At best, they simply failed to elucidate on what was happening, at worst, they actively distracted from the action on the stage. The reformulation of cast into chorus made the play feel unfocused, like too many thoughts and styles were competing for stage time. Indeed, widowhood, grief, homosexual shame, corporate greed, activism and parenthood are all touched upon from a secondary standpoint within the narrative and there is, arguably, too much to say for a production with a running time of 1hr 15. While Smith should be applauded for her wide-ranging, unflinching gaze, the result is that she was forced to compromise on a focused, coherent vision.

Sometimes, too, the dialogue verged on the twee: ‘I’m more scared of humans than foxes’ and the allegory was heavy-handed, lacking in subtlety. At the end, the audience is not given credit for what they have already perceived, as the play becomes a sort of morality tale in which the themes are spelled out explicitly. This is to the detriment of the piece, which doesn’t need to explain itself or hammer home a point.

Having said this, there is a great deal that the audience can take away from Human Animals, which feels like a masterpiece in embryonic form. There are lots of good ideas and thought processes that haven’t quite been developed to their full potential, but many sparks of great intellect. 

Reviews by Cal Kenny

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The Blurb

In the overcrowded city, nature is getting out of control.

The mice are scratching between walls, the pigeons are diseased and the foxes are beginning to rule the streets.

The problem is growing. It’s contagious. It has to be stopped, before it’s too late.

“People can get used to terrible things. Very quickly. If they have to. It doesn’t take much for things to start to fall apart”

Stef Smith’s Royal Court debut play is directed by Royal Court Associate Director Hamish Pirie.