If British playwright David Byrne’s goal in writing a play inspired by historian Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind was to further promote that much-praised book, he has succeeded brilliantly. I plan to read Sapiens, finally, just as soon as I finish poring through the text of Byrne’s Secret Life of Humans, which is impressively constructed, eloquent and thought-provoking in its own right.
Sadly, those qualities do not, in themselves, guarantee compelling drama. Produced by the New Diorama Theatre, where Byrne is artistic and executive director, in co-production with Greenwich Theatre, Secret Life is directed by Byrne and Kate Stanley, who previously teamed on Byrne’s satire inspired by George Orwell’s Down & Out in Paris and London. Here the collaborators, who received great acclaim during Secret Life‘s U.K. run, are charged with making complex observations and questions about the human condition—our origins and advantages, the challenges and responsibilities they’ve posed and the arrogance they’ve fostered—accessible in one 85-minute act, in which individual lives are examined in consideration of Harari’s concerns.
Despite its brevity, Secret Life can seem ponderous; it’s as if in trying to give due weight to the big ideas he’s tackling, rooted in a non-fiction book, Byrne makes the characters he creates (or adapts from history) mere mouthpieces for points of view than fully fleshed out human beings. Revered playwrights have been accused of similar tactics, of course; an esteemed actress I interviewed recently cited Shaw, in at least some of his plays, and I can’t disagree with her.
Byrne is working in a very different milieu here, one in which visuals and sound are almost as integral as the dialogue and asides. Yaiza Varona’s original music and sound design are a constant and sometimes distracting presence, reminding me at points of Tom Gibbons’ work in Ivo van Hove’s mannered Broadway revivals of The Crucible and A View From The Bridge. While Secret Life won’t likely draw comparisons to Arthur Miller, or Shaw, there is some lovely, lyrical writing that’s nearly overshadowed amid the dissonant strains of music and the relentless ticking and clamoring of percussive effects. When a huge blast indicating a historic catastrophe is followed by an ominous silence, it’s almost a relief.
The blast provides one climactic moment in a play that weaves in the life and death of Jacob “Bruno” Bronowski, noted mathematician and author of the BBC documentary series The Ascent of Man, alongside an account of a brief, fictional relationship, decades later, between his grandson and a female anthropologist. We are first introduced to Ava, the scientist, as she leads a lecture. “We have gone from being animals to believing we alone were created in the image of gods,” Ava tells her class, introducing a perspective that will juxtapose Bruno’s theory of humanity’s constant progress—of our “great escape,” as he puts it, from poverty, famine and early death.
What follows involves both specific secrets, locked away by Bruno in a room he furnished with an alarm system, and evidence of the general contradictions that make us human—like Ava’s apparent decision, for all her moral posturing, to take advantage of the grandson, Jamie, when her job is threatened. Stella Taylor makes both Ava’s vulnerability and her cunning convincing, providing a nice foil to Andrew Strafford-Baker’s initially more easygoing, earnest Jamie. Richard Delaney’s Bruno is physically and intellectually robust, a man of great confidence who also shows us the necessity of doubt; Olivia Hirst and Andy McLeod bring empathy and nuance as, respectively, Bruno’s devoted wife and his rueful colleague and friend.
Jen McGinley’s set design and Zakk Hein’s projections are less obtrusive than the sonic embellishment, and more imaginative, ranging from historically evocative art to footage of Britain’s The Michael Parkinson Show, on which Bruno appeared. In one archival clip, another distinguished thinker, Bertrand Russell, makes a remark that now seems chillingly prescient.
“In this world that is getting more and more closely interconnected,” says Russell, who died in 1970, “we have to learn to tolerate each other if we are to live together and not die together.” Sound advice for our times, and one of several instances in which Secret Lives of Humans taps into a notion worthy of its scope.
Correction: In its original form, this review misidentified the playwright.