“Everything that makes us human exists in theatre.” So details David Byrne, writer and co-director of Secret Life of Humans, in the show’s programme note. It’s a fair explanation of why adapting material from Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and the work of 70s television presenter Jacob “Bruno” Bronowski for the stage is actually a very good idea. Where better to explore the leftovers of human evolution and our own humanity than in a theatre?
If you’re worried this sounds a little too educational, be assured that Secret Life of Humans is populated by very whole, human characters. Ava is a (recently fired) academic, and our guide to the story. When she isn’t taking her place in the plot, she talks, lecture-style, in a direct address to the audience, Stella Blue Taylor plays her with pathos as her own trials and tribulations become apparent. Particularly wonderful, too, is Richard Delaney as Bruno, breathing to life a fairly forgotten popular figure, whose troubling secrets come to a head throughout the course of the play.
Byrne’s script, devised with the company, is endearing and educational without ever being stuffy or dry. Each and every character, whether historical or fictional, feels fully-formed, which is commendable in a play that tackles such vast subjects as evolution, adaption, and the future of the human race.
If you’ve seen or read anything about Secret Life of Humans, you’ll probably know that the actors walk along the back wall, suspended four metres above the heads of the actors on the ground. For all the play’s brilliance – and it is a brilliant, sparkling gem of a script – I just couldn’t fathom why the aerial walking needed to happen. Other than the very occasional mention of looking at humanity’s past through the eyes of gods, it felt a little bit – unpopular opinion alert – gimmicky. It happened because it could happen, but it is relatively irrelevant to the plot and is almost too distracting.
We can learn a lot from the content explored in Secret Life of Humans, and an extra reading list is even provided for audience members who want to learn more. The staging is a little safe – the (probably unnecessary) aerial work aside, the projections and sliding bookcases are relatively tame. But the show’s speculations on the future of humanity are surprisingly positive, and it’s a wonderful antidote to the gloom and doom of today to hear a perspective with so much faith in our future. Perhaps we could learn from it.