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Theatre in Review: Secret Life of Humans (59E59)

Richard Delaney. Photo: Richard Davenport

Secret Life of Humans is a curious, if frequently beguiling, thing -- an investigation into a scientific career adulterated by a penchant for mythmaking -- that, to make its point, must construct a myth of its own. It's easy to be entranced by David Byrne's acute dialogue, as well as the fluid and visually exciting staging by him and Kate Stanley; it isn't until the show is over that you might find yourself troubled by certain nagging questions.

The man in the spotlight is Jacob Bronowski, the mathematician and scientific historian turned television presenter, whose chef-d'Ĺ“uvre, the thirteen-part BBC documentary The Ascent of Man (1975), was a landmark event, both in the United Kingdom and here. Byrne -- a British playwright, not the former front man for Talking Heads -- introduces Ava, a young lecturer in science, to make the point that, to the professional scientist, The Ascent of Man is marked by a certain simplicity of approach with a strong dose of uplift dedicated to portraying human progress as an unbroken walk toward enlightenment. Could Bronowski really have believed such an assertion?

Indeed, as portrayed here, the man's life was haunted by the kind of darkness that would seem to profoundly challenge such a utopian point of view: A Polish emigre, he was not initially granted entree into Britain's golden circle of upper-class achievement. Despite graduating with distinction from Cambridge -- he was named Senior Wrangler, an extraordinary accolade that should have opened all sorts of doors -- he ended up at the University of Hull, which, in the arcane social architecture of British society at the time, constituted a major slight. Asked why he was not given a position at Cambridge, he says, simply, "They did not want someone like me. Or, well, a Jewish immigrant like me."

Bronowski's move toward the center of power began when he was recruited by MI5 to provide research crucial to facilitating the firebombing of Dresden. Later, he visited Japan to document the effects of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Secret Life of Humans, it is when he is delivering his report on the latter in a BBC radio broadcast that somebody notices his sonorous voice and assured manner behind the mic, and his career as a presenter is born.

The question that haunts the play is, how to square Bronowski, the cheerleader for human progress, with the man who had intimate knowledge of -- indeed, contributed to -- weapons of mass destruction? To probe this point, Byrne gives Ava a blind date with Jamie, a fictional Bronowski grandson. Jamie, who is easygoing and not the brightest star in the galaxy, describes his grandfather, whom he never knew, in glowing terms, and when he brings Ava back to the family manse for sex, he alludes to a locked room that belonged to Bronowski, which has never been opened in the forty-plus years since his death. (No explanation for this is offered; according to The Financial Times, Bronowski's widow eagerly sought out universities to take his papers.) Ava, coping with post-coital boredom, and clearly not as interested in Jamie as he is in her, convinces him to enter the late man's sanctum sanctorum and open the sealed boxes that, presumably, contain his secrets.

What they learn is described above, just about all of which can be found through an Internet search, a fact that renders slightly inane Ava and Jamie's wonder at it all. Jamie's faith in his ancestor is deeply shaken, perhaps for good reason; among other things, the number of civilian deaths in Dresden was staggering, one of the war's greatest horrors. But none of this is revelatory. In real life, Bronowski's MI5 file was released in 2011, and, in 2014, his daughter Lisa established his archive at Cambridge; having bits and pieces of his life spooned out to us by Ava and Jamie as if they were state secrets at times feels faintly ridiculous. Worse, Byrne is also not above indulging in a bit of irresponsible gossip: Jamie notes that his grandfather met with members of the Manhattan Project. "So, he was involved," the younger man says. "My grandfather helped drop the first -- " Ava, cutting him off, adds, "Jamie -- there is no evidence of that. Nothing I've seen." In which case, why are they talking about it?

Still, even if the point is belabored a bit, it is an urgent one: Can we face our capacity for destruction and survive? Or do we need a white lie about our natural goodness that we can wrap around ourselves like a warm blanket? Speaking about his trip to Japan, Bronowski says, "We need to forcibly forget what we've done, who we are, lock it away, and, instead, imagine who we could become. Otherwise there's no hope for the future." (The allusion to his own locked room is obvious.) Ava, discussing the other humanoid forms who didn't survive prehistory, adds, by way of contradiction, "You see, it's almost certain that our great grandparents murdered every other variant of human species. Those invisible myths every culture has, they mean so much to us, it's worth risking our very existence to protect what is, really, just emptiness in the air." And Bertrand Russell shows up, via video, to pronounce, "In this world that is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other if we are to live together and not die together. We must learn a kind of charity and tolerance, which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet."

Devising a fluid strategy in which Bronowski and his wife, Rita, often occupy the same physical plane as Ava and Jamie, the action nimbly leaps between past and present, tracking Bronowski's progress from outsider to celebrity, a journey that, perhaps, demanded that he ignore the troubling questions underpinning his research in order to create great television. The production is loaded with visual wonderments: Actors, hoisted at a ninety-degree angle to the upstage wall, walk across it, thoroughly disorienting one's sense of space. In Jen McGinley's set design, only a few bookcases are needed to thoroughly reshape the stage from scene to scene. The projection designer, Zakk Hein, fills the stage with a cascade of alluring imagery: prehistoric cave paintings, the first photograph of a human (in 1838), footage from The Ascent of Man, and an interview with the BBC presenter Michael Parkinson. In one of the most astonishing moments, a starry sky appears to fall over, like a wall, before vanishing altogether. Catherine Webb's lighting is alert to the needs of the constantly shifting production and Ronnie Dorsey's costumes neatly delineate each of the play's several time frames; Yaiza Varona has provided extensive original musical and sound effects, including ambient restaurant noises, typewriters, air raid sirens, and an impressively unsettling explosion.

Given the script's constant shifts of focus and unwillingness to flesh out certain situations, the entire cast does remarkably well. Stella Taylor captures Ava's avidity for knowledge without soft-peddling the fact that she is taking Jamie for everything he has to offer. (Ava, we are told, is out of a job, as her entire department is being eliminated. The reasons for this are unclear, although there is the faint suggestion of Brexit-related cutbacks.) Andrew Strafford-Baker's Jamie has the simplicity of a child, adding real poignancy to a character who is almost criminally underwritten. Richard Delaney brings an air of authority to Bronowski; it can't be easy playing a character who, to some degree, needs must remain a mystery. Olivia Hirst brings a probing intelligence to the loving, yet coolly analytical Rita. In some ways, the best performance belongs to Andy McLeod as George, a closeted gay, Roman Catholic colleague of Bronowski's, who comes to bitterly regret-for very personal reasons -- the fruit of their research; his scenes are written with masterly understatement.

The irony of using frank artifice to expose a scientist's lack of rigor is too obvious to be dwelled on, but your reaction to it will determine your feelings about Secret Life of Humans. If you can believe that Ava and Jamie could invade Bronowski's private archive and, in the course of three hours before dawn, unearth the most sordid details of his career, you're likely to be thoroughly gripped by what follows. Even if you're put off by this shaky dramaturgy, Bronowski remains a fascinating subject, and many of the play's passages are deeply engrossing. Byrne and his collaborators are asking all the right questions; I just wish they didn't have to frame them in alternative facts. -- David Barbour

(8 June 2018)

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