New Diorama Theatre
Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh
Of the five shows this reviewer has seen in the last 24 hours, four have been devised, co-created or multi-authored. Secret Life of Humans takes this to the next level, being an adaptation of a book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (but not really an adaptation, more of a staged presentation of its ideas) with elements devised by the cast, written by co-director David Byrne, and also a reimagining of some historically real events in the life of scientist and TV presenter Jacob Bronowski. There is no shortage of material to muse on in this cerebral, metaphysically profound show.
And it is really a very well crafted piece of theatre. Andrew Strafford-Baker plays Jamie, grandson of the TV scientist who, pressed by the curiosity of his Tinder date Ava (Stella Blue Taylor), is encouraged to investigate the locked and alarmed room where his grandfather kept his papers and archives.
What follows is a dramatised discourse between Ava, arguing for the essentially destructive nature of homo sapiens, and Jamie, acting as advocate for his dead grandfather, and promoting his stated beliefs: that the march of mankind is essentially progressive and, by implication, benign.
In flashbacks we see Bronowski (played by Richard Delaney) interacting with his wife and his wartime colleague George (Olivia Hirst and Andy McLeod) and slowly, as the young couple in the present excavate Bronowski’s hidden past as they explore his archives, we realise the values of Bronowski’s TV show, The Ascent of Man is uncomfortably compromised by the truth of his past: though arguing for a beneficent mankind, he spent the war years working to ensure the optimum destructive power of the incendiary bombs the British used on German towns and cities, contributing to the deaths of many thousands of innocent people. Unbeknownst to his adoring TV audience in the seventies, Bronowski was something of a British Alfred Nobel – espousing high moral values while facilitating mass destruction.
As the horror of this sinks in, the play becomes more about the moral stance we, here and now (and represented by Jamie and Ava) take on our own past as a species. And by degrees it feels like the whole history of human kind will come down to the resolution that will take place between these two people. Everything seems to devolve on to their relationship – and it almost works. But there is just too much weight in the metaphysical considerations to be supported by the relationship that has evolved between these characters.
Perhaps it comes down to the setup – the fact that they have just met and haven’t anything much invested in each other might be what robs the piece of that vital sense of jeopardy. Perhaps they aren’t quite sympathetic enough for us to care: while Jamie is a likeable slacker, Ava is driven by self-interest, and as such her behaviour is always morally questionable.
There is no doubt that this is an artistic choice – the idealist Jamie is ultimately very sweet and rather noble, where the pragmatist Ava is absolutely prepared to act selfishly in pursuit of goals that are to her benefit. But in the final analysis the play is compromised by choice.
That said, this is a really enjoyable show. There are plenty of laughs, lots of big ideas, and some first class stagecraft, solidly directed by Byrne with Kate Stanley. At various points we are put in the position of an all-seeing god as the actors work on wires against the back wall of the stage, to give us a top down view. Sliding bookcases and shifting furniture masterfully accomplish transitions between scenes. The movement is all smartly accomplished and slick.
The show is beautifully designed by Jen McGinley: projections onto the black back wall create constellations in the night sky or a massive blackboard full of equations. The stage furniture is styled in a palette of browns that satisfyingly calls to mind the war years where much of the action takes place, the nineteen seventies, when Bruno Bronowski was at his most famous, and the present fad for mid-century modern furniture.
As a show, it frustratingly teeters on the brink of being something utterly ingenious, a play that tackles the big ideas and manages to satisfy us with conclusive answers. But in the end, perhaps inevitably, it cannot answer our biggest questions, and can only offer us a very enjoyable and intellectually engaging theatre experience.