Monday, 29 November 2021

Challenging reflections on the journey of human nature

PLAYWRIGHT David Byrne’s intriguing drama Secret Life of Humans grapples with big ideas and asks fundamental questions about the nature of humankind.

The play draws on Jacob Bronowski’s ideas in The Ascent of Man and tracks aspects of Bronowski’s professional and personal life. Bronowski is at the epicentre of the drama and is portrayed in a masterful way by John Goodman.

We begin with Ava (confident and poised Lara Collins) as she delivers a lecture to her students. She has her sights set on Bronowski’s grandson Jamie (Katie Moreton) as a route to finding out more about the man himself.

They date. Sincere and affable Jamie, played with humour and openness by Katie Moreton, is no match for scheming Ava, who gains access to the family archive and uncovers secrets that cast a different light on Bronowski’s reputation.

This multi-media play is carefully constructed, with flashbacks, including video clips, intersecting seamlessly with present-day scenes.

Well done to all cast members for their faultless timing in delivering complicated dialogue. Full marks also to the technical crew: set design by Anthony Travis; lighting and projection by Lawrence Bird and Clara Barnhurst; sound by Carole Brown.

This is a profoundly cerebral play, but several factors make it highly watchable. There’s plenty of quiet humour, including some library jokes. It’s also compelling in how real human relationships are set against grand concepts.

We see Bronowski at work, with colleague George (Eli Taryn) during the Second World War. We also meet Bronowski the family man. His widow Rita (played with dignity and serenity by Emma Sterry) mourns his untimely death but is resistant to knowing secrets about his war work that he had always kept from her. Is this family loyalty or denial?

Bronowski the thinker was wary of too much certainty: the play draws no firm conclusions about whether human beings are inherently good or bad.

However, Ava offers a depressing example of how people can deceive. Her actions, in pursuit of her own career, distress the fiercely loyal Jamie in how they cast aspersions on his family.

Superb, well-paced direction by Stephanie Gunner-Lucas gives us space to contemplate serious matters and ethical concerns. John Goodman is precise and measured as Bronowski as he challenges the audience with reflections on the human condition and the journey of human history.

Secret Life of Humans marks an ambitious return to the stage in a production which gains added kudos in a week when Progress Theatre has been awarded the Queen’s Award for voluntary Service.

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