Human Animals at the Royal Court Theatre
In Human Animals Stef Smith casts her eco-nightmare in an Orwellian, almost neo-Darwinian light, with widespread, barely justified (or justifiable) government aggression meeting the pestilent sprawl of urban nature.
Initially the play brings to mind Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (or Birdemic if you want something on the trashier side of things), with the encroaching presence of London’s pigeon population invading the lives of the narrative’s six characters. However, as the queasy intensity ramps up, and the play’s bloody, grubby atmosphere grows, things become far more political, Smith challenging humanity’s ability to sit and watch the world twist out of recognition with only a whimper of protest.
It’s a savvy choice to start the destruction with pigeons and foxes. Both routinely labelled the scourge of the city, the loss of each animal (with rampant population growth and a mysterious contagion blamed) is deemed acceptable, only to signal a wider societal breakdown that Smith plays like a step by step guide to the end of the world. In many ways Human Animals is reminiscent of one of the Royal Court’s first plays this year, Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone. Each playwright butts the domestic against the dystopian, casting devastation through a more personal lens. Yet while Churchill abstracts her concepts through a series grimly funny monologues, Stef Smith has the audience witness the gradual eco-disintegration of society one failing at a time.
It’s remarkable how much is done within spatial and temporal constraints of the play: viscera gradually coats the back window, animal gunk falls from the ceiling and the world crumbles and is reborn in just over an hour. The eerie tackiness of the Camilla Clarke’s set, meanwhile, nails the vibe of a giant hamster cage; the bright pastel colours and plastic plant life trap the actors like, well, human animals. There is even a flock or pack-like quality to the way director Hamish Pirie has the actors move when they aren’t in focus, something that only adds to the human zoo stylings of the set.
On occasion the play begins to err on the preachy side of things, only to be prevented from doing so by the tenderness of the performances. Ian Gelder and Stella Gonet are especially touching as a pair of old friends, while Bend It Like Beckham’s Natalie Dew brings a fire to what could have been a generic “naïve protestor” role. Yet sometimes the message needs to be blunt to fully register; as Smith shows, humanity has more than proved its willingness to sleepwalk through environmental devastation until it is too late.
Human Animals is on at the Royal Court Theatre from 18th May until 18th June 2016, for further information or to book a visit here.