Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, London – until 18 June 2016
I adore animals, certainly more than I like humans, and I think I missed my calling to be a zookeeper or conservationist. I can’t bear any depiction of animals being harmed on stage or film; even mentions of animal abuse is hugely upsetting. So, I found Stef Smith’s Human Animals a pretty horrible ordeal.
Smith’s frantic, apocalyptic story captures society’s instinctive, “Must. Destroy. Everything.” response to the natural world threatening contemporary human sovereignty. As the government wreaks havoc on the natural world in the name of security, half a dozen civilians have a range of reactions to the animal population’s invasion of their homes. This visceral, destabilising drama blasts the audience with 75 minutes of shocking, reactive action as the infection spreads across species, but with the fast pace and constant suspense, it’s difficult to relate to any of the characters. Canny design avoids much mess and graphic depictions of the described carnage, but the narrated horror is all too easy enough to imagine from most modern nations, and his highly disturbing on several levels.
Lisa (Lisa McGrills) and Jamie (Ashley Zhangazha) are a young couple supposedly very much in love, though lacking chemistry. Lisa doesn’t like animals much, so isn’t fazed when the government starts killing off the wild ones who are trying to invade people’s homes. She’s had enough of birds smashing into her windows and either dying or injuring themselves. Jamie can’t handle the ruthless killing; his collapse is well written and convincingly performed. Lisa’s boss Si (Sargon Yelda) is one of “them”, a vile, slimy little man profiting from the disaster. Young activist Alex (Natalie Dew) has just returned from travelling abroad, but mum Nancy (Stella Gonet) still tries to treat her as a child. There’s a lot of gorgeous intimacy and tension between them, often diffused by their genial family friend John (Ian Gelder), who clashes with Si regularly in the local boozer. Otherwise, there is little contact between these conflicting personalities, but the reactions from each character to the growing destruction are heartfelt and saddening.
Smith’s best writing is her conflict scenes between the characters. The rest certainly isn’t bad at all, but the storyline requires either depicting the violent extermination of animals or copious narration. Her choice is understandable and, though well incorporated into natural dialogue, there’s a lot of describing. The design team (Camilla Clarke, Lizzie Powell and Mark Melville) work with director Hamish Pirie to break up the text effectively, with sound, lighting, projection and jets of paint constantly interrupting and surprising/startling the audience. Being constantly kept on edge for over an hour is exhausting, with the story causing additional trauma. As horrible as it is, the whole effect is intricately constructed and totes a powerful message.
Also of note is the set design. The cast and audience are inside a zoo-style animal enclosure, disempowering the characters and trivialising their problems because the outside world is dominant and ever watching. Though the set does not literally indicate the characters’ world and gives no hints of the government-ordered extermination and arson that they describe, its tranquillity is calmly sinister.
The production elements and dialogue are excellent, through the relentlessness of Human Animals can alienate – but that’s the point. It’s terrible, clever commentary on contemporary environmentalism, fear of social disorder and individuals’ reactions to what is effectively a civil war and its strong effect will be long remembered by this animal lover.
Human Animals runs through 18 June.
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