The scariest things are always the most mundane. Poverty, death, abandonment – the abject, unspeakable terror of these things can blossom and bubble through the cracks of casual conversation in the most natural way. Terror sits easy alongside banality.
When you walk into the theatre, you’re greeted with the neat vivisection of a two-storey Chinatown apartment. It’s spacious yet cave-like. Airy yet full of darkness. Full of potential for a new couple who have just moved in, who are hosting an impromptu Thanksgiving for their family, but with these blank white walls which are just waiting to have anxieties and fears splattered onto them. Stephen Karam’s script approaches the relationships in this family with the raised edge of a scalpel, incrementally slipping under the skin and lifting the flap to show us the gore and the gristle beneath.
I admired it more than I liked it. Karam’s naturalism is so assured that it feels too easy. There is a lot of audience laughter, mainly based around the awkwardness of family dinners, a trope I’d be pleased to never encounter in the theatre again. It’s an obvious device and I could feel myself yearning for something more. An explosion of that trick. Something which does eventually come, though perhaps a little too late.
Because The Humans is at its most horrific, its most beautiful, its most wrenching when it lets silence stretch out onstage, when it lets stillness luxuriate into the corners of this cavernous apartment. It’s a ghost story similar to Annie Baker’s John – a less ambitious version of that piece, maybe. Similarly to that play, US trauma hangs large over the stage. The father of the family has recurring dreams of a woman with no face, a woman with skin stretched over her eye sockets and mouth.
Two members of the family narrowly missed being killed in 9/11. Half of the people onstage are either unemployed or about to be. They talk about money constantly, seek solidarity in each other, bicker and openly talk about the issues facing their country and their family and yet there’s still, (still!) this huge, bottomless gulf of incommunicable despair underneath them that they’re trying to ignore as best they can. The final stretch of the play takes place in near-silence and near-darkness and it’s as if all these things get warped into a symbolic iteration of their fear.
It’s the silences that will stick. The tableaus of loneliness. A father with his hands in his pockets, with his back to us. A daughter leaning against a window, exhaling. A mother and a grandmother on a sofa, their arms wrapped around each other. A father in dim light, pressing his fist to his mouth so his daughter won’t hear him cry. Language is rarely enough to express the enormity of terror. Oddly, language ends up being too specific for it. It exhausts itself and images have to take over. Images allow the undefinable, the terrible, to sit and breathe.
The Humans is on until 13 October 2018 at Hampstead Theatre. Click here for more details.