Scottish playwright Stef Smith’s short new play packs a punch as an apocalyptic plague of animal infection sweeps through the city – the human animals are left to ride it out in a showdown of psychological strength and survival of the fittest.
Upon entering the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court, a familiar yet exotic soundscape of insects subtly play out into the space. The exotic reference is amplified by the set design which incorporates the lush paint strokes of verdant fronds juxtaposed against the opposite wall depicting an arid Wild West landscape which includes a silhouette of the city’s most prominent and recognisable features nestled on the horizon. This is London but not as we know it. Most intriguing is the back wall, opposite the audience, where an atrium-like glass window spans the attic space and leans in as though the actors and audience are on the inside to be looked upon. This evokes an unsettling feeling which becomes heightened when video images of maggots and crickets are projected onto the sloping glass, then replaced by the moving images of the audience in real-time shot from above. We are here to witness a play whose title makes its subject matter abundantly clear and the decision to throw a mirror in front of the seated guests makes an alarming point even before the lights have gone up.
The play begins with a shattering of glass as something falls to the floor, bleeding. An unknown infection has begun to spread through everything living and pigeons are shot to reduce the risk of further contamination. Centred around pairs of interlinking relationships, the play explores how people cope in times of crisis. A young couple discuss their love and wish to become parents as roads are closed so that parks can be set ablaze to exterminate the vermin. The capably-acted Alex, recently returned from travelling, discovers her mother (Stella Gonet) still dealing with the loss of her husband by drinking G&Ts with the solitary neighbour, John (Ian Gelder). The idealistic Alex implores the elders to do something and takes it upon herself to take action against the absurdity of destroying parks, zoo animals and pets. It makes no difference. The powers that be have no time for sentimentality and embark upon a diatribe of propaganda to cleanse the city of its pests. Sargon Yelda deftly plays Si, the corporate baddie who works in chemical distribution; he boasts about his profits rising thanks to the disaster and his interaction with John borders on the absurd.
Hamish Pirie directs Smith’s twisting tale with natural ability, playing with the punchlines and extending the uncomfortably developing situation with well-staged ease. The set design of Camilla Clarke highlights the macabre at the heart of the piece by periodically dosing the back windows with gallons of blood and yellow infectious fluid. The play builds momentum and flows into a surreal scene of hyped-up scenarios which add to the feeling that this play has a point and isn’t afraid to shout it. Many readings can be made about ecological disaster, authority, austerity and even immigration. A dystopian future London where one animal exterminates another draws parallels to the horrors of ethnic cleansing and when Si comments ‘there is no place for tenderness anymore,’ a prophetic wake-up call has been cried.
Human Animals plays until the 18th June at The Royal Court Theatre where tickets start at £10. Box office: 020-7565-5000. Visit www.royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/humananimals for more information.