by Carol Rocamora
The history and future of humanity as a central dramatic theme? That’s a rather tall order for an 85-minute play, don’t you think?
And yet, that’s exactly the challenge that writer and co-director David Byrne has embraced in The Secret Life of Humans, an inspiring work devised by the daring New Diorama Theatre.
Given the daily drama we’re living through on both national and world stages, we owe Mr. Byrne & Co. a debt of gratitude for the opportunity to step back from the sturm und drang to look at the bigger picture. And that’s just what this play does. This fearless company addresses the big questions: Where did we come from? How can we apply our shared history to make our world better today? “Where are we going? What as a species do we actually want to achieve?” – as one character asks.
With such an ambitious purpose, the play’s first line – “Where to begin”? – is apt. Byrne employs a framing device of Ava (Stella Taylor), a lecturer/narrator, who turns the theatre into a classroom. (“I just want to be sure there are only humans in the audience,” she quips). She serves as our guide into our shared past, and earlier, through the deep, dark millennia that came before us.
Ava meets Jamie (Andrew Strafford-Baker) through an on-line dating service – and that’s the catalyst for this journey through time and human history. Jamie tells Ava of his famous grandfather, Jacob “Bruno” Bronowski (Richard Delaney), a scientist and creator of the BBC series “The Ascent of Man,” and the secret room Bruno installed in his house in 1949. They break into Bruno’s sealed room, and discover dark secrets from his past involving research related to World War II, and deeper into history.
Admittedly, the narrative involving science, philosophy and social evolution is heady, but co-directors Byrne and Kate Stanley make sure it is brought to vivid theatrical life. An able ensemble of six enacts the story against a back wall illuminated with Zakk Hein’s arresting projections – ranging from interviews with the real Jacob Bronowski to cave paintings to heavenly constellations. My favorite visual moments come when actors, suspended from invisible wires, literally walk across the wall, their bodies suspended in time and space. The image is breathtaking.
Such time travels deep into the past are not new to the contemporary stage. Watching The Secret Life of Humans, I was overcome with the memory of Mnemonic, the theatrical masterpiece devised by Simon McBurney and his amazing Theatre de Complicité in 2000. As in The Secret Life of Humans, McBurney’s characters reach back deep into the past (5,200 BC, the discovery of the Bolzano Iceman) to connect with prehistoric humanity. “We do not know where we come from,” says a character in Mnemonic. “We’re all related,” says Ava in The Secret Life of Humans, articulating the optimistic discovery of both plays.
The Secret Life of Humans leaves us with an uplifting conclusion articulated by the voice of Bertrand Russell, about charity, tolerance, and living together. The play also leaves us with a sober warning: “The only thing we have learned from history is that we don’t learn from history” (citing Auschwitz and Nagasaki).
Photos: David Monteith Hodge
The Secret Life of Humans, by David Byrne, directed by David Byrne and Kate Stanley, devised by the Company, Brits Off Broadway, at 59e59 Theaters, through July 1.