Human Animals (Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs), London (****)
Scotland has a fantastic tradition for new writing and writers. Stef Smith is just the latest, a double award-winner for Swallow and the text for Cora Bissett’s powerful essay on human trafficking, Roadkill.
Smith has also been part of the Royal Court’s Young Writers Group. Human Animals bears many of its distinctive legacies: criss-crossing narratives, succinct, elliptical dialogue.
Smith’s sights this time are on something as urgent as human trafficking. The human animal and our endless capacity for destruction.
There’s a lot of it about at present as artists try to alert us to imminent dangers. Director Hamish Pirie and designer Camilla Clarke make the point as soon as we enter the Court’s Upstairs space – Clarke’s perspex reflecting the actors as if specimens in a zoo.
Environment and climate change as the pressing issue of our time has become Vicky Featherstone’s abiding theme during her Royal Court tenure. Whilst Caryl Churchill’s recent Escaped Alone occupied the theatre’s main stage a couple of months ago, Smith’s apocalyptic vision (somewhat mirroring Churchill’s Far Away) sounds a dire warning about the catastrophes awaiting our meddling and effects on Nature.
Remembering perhaps the funeral piles of cattle corpses during the foot and mouth epidemic, Smith sets about showing Nature – birds, especially pigeons and foxes – turning on each other and us, and our response. Destroy in order to preserve – a timely metaphor for the current political climate. Create enough fear and leave the human animal to do the rest. Turn on itself.
Smith’s villain of the piece, Si, works in what he calls `chemical distribution’ and looks to be making a financial killing as society collapses around him: homes and parks get burnt, a state of emergency gathers pace as relationships fall apart.
Smith transmits the mayhem cleverly through the tensions expressed in parallel personal lives – Stella Gonet’s widowed mother and her activist daughter, their neighbour, John and his odd pub drinking pal, Sargon Yelda’s smiling Si and Natalie Dew and Ashley Zhangazha’s innocent young married couple.
There is hope at the end of Smith’s dark tunnel; Nature and kindness do reassert themselves. But Pirie and Smith make it a violent and tense, touch-and-go journey.
Human Animals runs at the Royal Court Theatre to June 18, 2016
Review first published in Reviewsgate,