In 1965, Time-Life published Rudolph Zallinger’s illustration, ‘The Road to Homo Sapiens’, the now infamous image which depicts ‘man’s long march from apelike ancestors to sapiens’. Although it was never initially titled as such, the image later came to be known as ‘March of Progress’, cementing the visual link Zallinger made between ape, human and linearity and the ideological notion of progress. These ideas, of human progress and human exceptionalism, have seen a resurgence of interest in recent years and lie at the heart of historian Yuval Noah Harari’s bestseller Sapiens, translated into English and published in 2014.
I read and enjoyed Harari’s book when it was first published and was intrigued to discover that New Diorama’s David Byrne had also read and enjoyed Sapiens, so much so that he and his company devised an entire show around it – Secret Life of Humans. Quickly realising that Harari’s erudite, non-fiction epic history of the human race needed anchoring within a more particular story of specific characters, Byrne turned to the life of Jacob ‘Bruno’ Bronowski. Bronowski (marvellously played here by Richard Delaney) was a mathematician and a television presenter, most famous for his 13-part 1973 BBC documentary series, The Ascent of Man.
If the play’s take on Bronowski’s story is mostly factually accurate, Secret Life of Humans perhaps unfairly portrays him as an uncomplicated advocate of linear progress as depicted in Zallinger’s illustration. Bronowski’s own mathematical wartime work and his later reports on the effect of the atom bomb in Japan meant that he surely had a more complex relationship with moral equations, but that ambiguity doesn’t always come across on stage. Instead, the voice of modern morality is provided by Ava (Stella Blue Taylor), the play’s central narrator and a struggling academic on a casual date with Bronowski’s grandson (Andrew Strafford-Baker). Ava’s critique of Bronowski’s belief in progress is underpinned by extracts from some of the more striking provocations taken from Harari’s Sapiens – why are homo sapiens the only species of humans left in existence, for example? Did our ancestors commit the first act of genocide against the other, different humans?
Thus, Secret Life of Humans plays out across a number of scales and framing devices and measures of time. There are the vast distances between early and modern humans; the relatively short, yet still mysterious, distances between grandfather and grandson; the overlaps between Harari’s book, Bronowski’s real life and the play’s invented characters. There is the measure of all of human history nestled inside a family’s history nestled inside a one-night stand. The transitions between these scales and times and histories play out seamlessly, delightfully even, thanks to an inspired staging. In the world of the Fringe, where companies have a very restricted get-in time, Secret Life of Humans has been incredibly ambitious. Using an amalgamation of old-fashioned theatrical wizardry, archival TV footage, an excellent (if occasionally too loud) musical score by Yaiza Varona and a constructed set design that does double-duty across various scenes, New Diorama has created a work which speaks of Harari’s Sapiens and the trouble with human progress while bringing a new story to the stage. Their effortless combination of digital technology, history and anthropology, storytelling and strong characters feels fresh and exciting, hopefully the first of many productions exploring a similar way of theatre-making, if not similar themes.
As a side note, it’s worth mentioning that, about ten minutes before the end of the performance, the venue lost all power. Stage lighting remained, but all other power went out. The actors were forced to ad-lib a completely new ending without the use of their projections. Although, I did at the time think that the final speech was a little bit out of keeping with the rest of the writing, I didn’t suspect anything out of the ordinary. It wasn’t until a later email from the producer explaining what had happened that things made sense. Bravo to the cast for keeping their cool when the lights went out.
Secret Life of Humans is on at Pleasance Courtyard until 28th August 2017. Click here for more details.