Before Homo sapiens there was Neanderthal man. And before Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Attenborough, there was Dr Jacob Bronowski. A Polish Jewish refugee, Bronowski became one of the first intellectuals to achieve TV stardom with his series The Ascent of Man. In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, which playwright David Byrne cites as one of his biggest inspirations, Yuval Harari argues that sapiens wiped out other human cousins. Of course, Byrne isn’t arguing that television pundits are lethally competitive (though that might make a compelling reality show), but with the company, and co-director Kate Stanley, he has devised a provocative and engaging evening that fleshes out scientific theory onstage by interlocking Dr Bronowski’s story with the meta-story of sapiens – and the story of a one-night stand. Thus, one of Harari’s other central theories, his perspective on relative time – that sapiens’ time has been short compared to life on earth and is not limitless – is demonstrated in just 90 minutes.
First meet anthropologist Ava, lecturing us, her student audience, winningly articulate in Stella Taylor’s attractive performance. She is the voice of Harari here, jokily demonstrating his theory that sapiens are still governed by hunter-gatherer instincts and fears, with the help of 20-something Jamie (appealing Andrew Strafford-Baker), fighting his way into a takeaway salad. It’s not giving away much to reveal that Jamie turns out to be Ava’s Tinder date – and Bronowski’s grandson. Going back to his family home for rather more than coffee, she has much to discover. For the secret life of Bronowski himself is kept in a locked room, to which Jamie has access. It proves to be a library stuffed with revelatory material, for the audience a portal to the past and to Bronowski himself, an engaging and compelling figure in Richard Delaney’s performance. Byrne plays with time, taking us to the scientist’s youth via the touching conceit that his wife Rita (Olivia Hurst, warm and moving) is comforted by reminiscing with the spirit of her late husband.
Bronowski’s War evidently included research on the atom bomb that involved signing the Official Secrets Act, leading to sapiens’ destruction on a hitherto-unimagined scale. Working as a lecturer at Hull University (rejected by his alma mater Cambridge as a Jewish immigrant), he is recruited by unassuming George (sympathetically repressed Andy McLeod). As air raids ravage London, they work feverishly to discover even more effective methods of wholesale destruction. Bronowski is changed by what he witnesses in person at Nagasaki and Auschwitz, which will inform his future writing and his career on radio and TV.
Zakk Hein’s projections brilliantly conjure Michael Parkinson, Bertrand Russell and (with aerial designer John Maddox) early Sapiens. Designer Jen McGinley’s fast-moving library shelves transport the action through time and space, atmospherically underscored by composer and sound designer Yaiza Varona and lit by Cat Webb. At once bracingly intellectual and warmly inclusive, Byrne’s play is urgently timely in a week that has seen chemical attacks on civilians and a threat of nuclear escalation.
By Judi Herman
Photos by David Monteith-Hodge
Secret Life of Humans runs until Saturday 5 May. 7.30pm (Tue-Sat), 3.30pm (Sat only). £15, £13.50. New Diorama Theatre, NW1 3BF. 020 7383 9034. www.newdiorama.com