Review: Animals who Ate their Humans
Creative, ambitious and a bit of a mess
‘Animals who Ate their Humans’ is mental. Specifically, it’s an absurdist, surrealist comedy (?) about taxidermy, anthropocentrism and the armed conflict in the Donbas following the Ukrainian revolution of 2014. If you thought that sounded ambitious for a Corpus Late (and new writing, no less), just wait till you hear about the aquarium.
Ewa Sulek’s script is not for everyone — but it was for me. Sulek’s writing is extremely playful and theatrical, yet remains sprawlingly contemplative. I felt her major short comings came in a disjunction between these two aspects, as, in the play’s mid-section, many of her thematic concerns and interesting ideas became blatantly broadcast in a diegetic radio conversation. Rather than expressing themes and ideas through all the medium has to offer, this scene disappointed by conveying Sulek’s interesting associations of ideas in an uninteresting way. These radio broadcasts were managed deftly by Lois Wright alongside a multitude of creative and difficult sound effects (such as live dubbing over Theo Rooney’s dialogue with the voices of the additional two Russian soldiers he was representing at once.
On the other hand, moments of action and interaction — primarily between the main characters, Sasha and Misha (Solvieg Palazzo and Thomas Whittaker) — demonstrated Sulek’s talent for surreal yet entertaining dialogue. Felicitous puns get tossed around, rhymes chime across rabid exchanges and voices change owner mid-monologue as speakers became seemingly possessed by their deceased pets. Unfortunately, this kind of writing is often extreamly difficult to perform and, despite the admirable efforts of Whittaker, Palazzo and their Director, Molly O’Gorman, the performers seemed to struggle. Interactions frequently felt stilted and unintentionally funny, while comedic moments in the writing (such as a particularly brilliant line about dog poison in the tea) seemed glossed over or missed in the execution.
There has been an enormous amount of care and love poured into this production; from the carefully crafted puppets and life-sized human effigy, to the inventive use of shadow puppetry to represent the aquarium of the pet shop. This simple device proved extremely effective as, from my seat at least, the shadow of Sasha’s hand as she plunged it into the water actually bent as if light was refracting its underwater image. O’Gorman’s use of these elements displayed an admirable creativity and ingenuity, and made me surprisingly alive to the shocking lack of puppets in Cambridge theatre. In many ways, however, the materials at hand struggled — alongside the performers — to immerse me in the play’s ambitious surrealism. When Misha and Sasha both climbed into the aquarium, ‘Animals who Ate their Humans’ verged on something quite wonderful, but its material limitations seemed to ask too much of an audience already worn down by messy performances.
‘Animals who Ate their Humans’ represents, in many ways, the kinds of things student theatre should embrace. The writing is brilliantly experimental, and its use of props and sound inventive. However, the production lacks heaps of polish, impeding its unconventional style from becoming engaging, while asking far too much from its audience.
Cover photo: Emma Shen.