Secret Life of Humans

Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33) Until Aug 27 at 16:30
Box Office Adults £11.50 / Concessions £10.00

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari’s bestselling non-fiction book which everyone and their dad read on holiday in 2011 has been adapted, not into a television series or documentary as one might expect, but into a theatrical stage production. Taking a non-fiction history book which chronicles the trials and tribulations of our species and adapting it into Secret Life of Humans, a play with a plot, characters, and a social setting is not an obvious choice but makes for a dynamic and provocative viewing experience.

Director David Byrne and New Diorama have taken the core themes of Harari’s book and its follow-up, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016) – ideas such as where humankind’s future lies, the relation between ethics and science, and how humans create meaning in life – and combined them with the story of Dr. Jacob “Bruno” Bronowski (Richard Delaney), a mathematician and historian of science who gained notoriety for his 1973 TV series The Ascent of Man. Bruno is haled as the “first David Attenborough” by one character in the play, and both his ideas and his legacy as a human being are put under the spotlight in this engaging play. By combining Sapiens’ themes of science, history, and philosophy with the life story of Bruno, Secret Life of Humans is given a character-driven narrative that personalises unanswerable philosophical questions. Bruno’s grandson (Andrew Strafford-Baker) discovers his ancestor’s locked room and the terrible secret hidden within it, with the help of Ava (Stella Blue Taylor), a woman he has met on Tinder and who has less than favourable views on Bruno’s framing the narrative of human history as a story of relentless progress.

From its opening, Secret Life of Humans kicks down the fourth wall, directly addressing the audience (through Stella Blue Taylor, who plays the role of narrator as well as Ava) with no pretence of a self-contained and enclosed production. By breaking apart theatrical suspension of disbelief, the production is able to make clear that the philosophical questions the play poses, primarily about the need for humans to create shared values in order to function, are real questions being posed to the audience and not merely devices through which to examine the characters on stage. Culture, political systems, money, the borders between nations, and even human rights are all constructed by societies so that humans function with a (mostly) universal set of rules which are taught to us from a young age and which are the foundation of civilisation. Secret Life of Humans forces us to engage with these lofty ideas but at the same time remains a compelling piece of theatre.

Taking its inspiration from a non-fiction book and the life of a television scientist, Secret Life of Humans uses an impressive variety of visual media to dramatise its themes. Aside from people walking on the walls (definitely a Fringe-first for me), documentary style footage, photographs, voice overs, projections, and even Michael Parkinson feature in the production as the play intertwines different forms of art to transcend the limitations of time and space to see human history as a space happening all around us. Theatre’s conventions, or, rather, the breaking of traditional theatrical conventions, such as the shattering of the fourth wall and staging different narratives simultaneously, allows for the destabilising of linear time. This helps to emphasise the point made by one character that history is not the simple progression of time as we are taught in school.

Physically and metaphorically, Secret Life of Humans has two narratives running side-by-side: the modern day discovery of the locked room by Bruno’s grandson and the dramatisation of Bruno’s secret and immoral past actions during the Second World War – it transpires that he tuned his mathematical capabilities to increasing the effectiveness of carpet-bombing. When examining his own personal culpability for the civilian lives lost, and wrestling with the idea that if he hadn’t done it then someone else would, Bruno himself says in a particularly poignant moment, “it was justified, but in hindsight unjustifiable”.

By staging these narratives simultaneously, Secret Life of Humans questions the conventional idea of time as self-enclosed and linear, and instead explores how we are walking with our prehistoric ancestors and how they are walking with us. Time, history, and facts – ideas which we tend to think of as stable and certain – are upended in this play as they are revealed to be wonderfully inventive fictions that our species has created. Like in Harari’s Sapiens and Homo Deus, the future of humankind is filled with both utopian potential and imminent dystopian doom in this intriguing addition to this year’s Edinburgh Fringe programme.