Stef Smith’s Royal Court debut, Human Animals, takes scaremongering tabloid headlines as its starting point. The thoughtful, unsettling play follows six interlinked characters through a dystopian London battling to get the better of its infected animal population. First it’s the pigeons, then the foxes. Soon the pets and the zoo animals are being incinerated by men in hazard suits.
Of course, it’s not really about the animals. It’s about the humans. Smith interrogates how far society is willing to go to protect themselves from threat, or perceived threat. The London of the play is willing to burn down every last park in service of the “greater good”. The political parallels are palpable.
The interconnected characters form a small cross section of society that allows Smith to explore what happens to humanity when the personal becomes political. The performances are strong, notably Stella Gonet as widow Nancy and Ian Gelder as her single neighbour John. Their platonic relationship, based on G&Ts and loneliness, is lovely to watch. John is also friends with Si (Sargon Yelda), an oddball who turns out to be employed by the company pushing chemicals onto the terrified population. The reason for his ruthlessness? His desire to see his daughter again. Love is very easily twisted into hate in this play with Nancy’s daughter, Alex campaigning against the animal atrocities in memory of her father.
Set against a huge Perspex window, Hamish Pirie’s production rattles along at quite a pace. Government-issued safety leaflets quickly propagate, roads are closed, banks are rumoured to be closing, phone lines go down, walls go up. At times the telltale signs of a collapsing society seem hackneyed, especially the projected “no signal” warning that flashes across the stage.
But where Smith and Pirie succeed is the commitment to the animal metaphor. Throughout, Smith asks what we borrow from animals (sex?), what they borrow from us (Prozac?) and what separates us (property?). She cleverly feeds the characters phrases borrowed from the animal world – “bullshit”, “hair of the dog”, “ruffled his feathers” – as a way of proving how impossible it is to draw lines between us. The confusion is continued by Camilla Clarke’s Crayola-bright set, which is as much a hutch as a house. The arrival of several small glass cages filled with insects and a miniature version of the onstage Wendy house hammers the point home. In blurring the lines between human and animal and highlighting the seemingly illogical exceptions to the rules (pets, for example), Smith is able to humorously subvert the hysteria at the centre of the play. With each wall that is constructed, the difference between good and evil becomes less well defined.
The production builds to a fantastic crescendo as paint splatters across the Perspex and debris falls from the sky and then, quite suddenly, the crisis is over: the last park has been burnt. But the ruined stage belies the calm. In the charged closing scene, the characters join their voices to describe a flock of pigeons pecking at the body of a hanging woman. Feathers turn to flesh as the birds morph into humans and the blood of the woman – read: sacrificial scapegoat – fertilises the grass beneath her. As talk returns to business as usual and to pet guinea pigs we are made acutely aware that the resolution of this tragedy will breed another.
Human Animals is on until 18th June 2016. Click here for more details.