Layered? Absolutely. Slick? Definitely. I just really struggled to find any of it genuinely captivating. The New Diorama’s Secret Life of Humans is the sort of Edinburgh show you feel you’re supposed to love, but proves a real struggle to connect with.
The stagecraft and production values of Secret Life of Humans are phenomenally impressive. There’s no denying that. Expertly-rehearsed transitions give an exceptional fluidity to proceedings; performers and sets appear to effortlessly evaporate as soon as scene come to natural end – and the walking on the back wall, particularly the first time it occurs, is an undeniably beautiful stage picture.
The piece’s subject matter is ambitious, and its text, layered. The piece attempts to combine anthropological studies, philosophical discussion and the work of Israeli historian Yuval Harari to track and dramatise the history of man. Plotlines and timeframes interweave to ask an overarching question: is mankind capable of learning from mistakes and making genuine progressive steps, or is it somewhat in our DNA (eternally ‘human’) to make the same errors time and time again?
As I said, it’s an ambitious, huge, epic question for a 60-minute Edinburgh play to boldly face in to, and Secret Life of Humans is worth commendation for that sheer ambition alone. But – from about 10 minutes in (after you’ve digested the impressive design and stagecraft) – I have to admit I began to find the piece a real struggle to connect with or be captivated by. The writing is intelligent and I’m sure well-researched, but not particularly dramatically interesting (you don’t particularly care about any of the characters, for example. They’re not quite ‘human’ enough to really connect with their stories). Which is perhaps ironic, when the history of mankind has to be one of the most epic and vivid stories of all. It became a slightly wacky, dramatised TED talk for me: a pretty presentation of extensive findings and probably even a thesis, but not really a story you can invest in as an audience in a theatre.
The most interesting dramatical moment is a metatheatrical nod to the fact one actor is ‘not really sleeping’ (we, as humans, have made the decision to accept the fiction that his character is and play along). The problem is this moment, or device, doesn’t really go anywhere though; it doesn’t steer things in a particularly new or exciting direction and the metatheatricality seems to evaporate as quickly as the set around it. It was just instances like that which I found a little puzzling, a little incongruous and just a little (dare, I say it) disappointing.