In what, for me, could be one of the theatrical coups of 2018, Dead Puppet Society (in conjunction with Trish Wadley Productions) bring their hit play The Wider Earth one to London, where it will be performed in a purpose-built theatre inside the Natural History Museum. The 357-seater auditorium will be set up in the Jerwood Gallery, just across from the world-famous dinosaur display near the Darwin Centre. And why is this such an engaging idea? Not only is this the first time a theatre has been installed in the museum, but also the play just happens to be about the 22-year-old Charles Darwin setting off on his five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle.
As the museum’s Director of Engagement Clare Matterson explains, “This is a really exciting creative collaboration – bringing together a hugely talented theatrical team and the Natural History Museum’s world-renowned scientific expertise. It makes perfect sense for the Museum to host this production which is a gripping retelling of one of the most important voyages in scientific history. During this expedition, Charles Darwin collected the specimens that would inspire his theory of evolution and change how we understand the world – specimens we still house at the Museum and continue to make available for global scientific research. The production is a tale of exploration and adventure and a thrilling new addition to our autumn offering to visitors. The team bring to life not only Darwin as a young explorer but also through intricate puppetry 30 of the fascinating creatures he met – from an Amazonian iguana to an Arctic tern.”
Though the original museum, then named the British Museum (Natural History), was brought into being by Sir Richard Owen (one of Darwin’s opponents), the ornate building in South Kensington is now most associated with Charles Darwin – thanks to his incredibly extensive work on evolution, and the marble statue that looks out over the Hintze Hall.
“It makes perfect sense for the Museum to host this production which is a gripping retelling of one of the most important voyages in scientific history.”
The building also houses working research scientists, some of whom will be working alongside the show’s creative producers to ensure its authenticity; the team is led by Professor Adrian Lister (author of Darwin’s Fossils).
The Wider Earth was conceived by creative director of Dead Puppet Society David Morton on a residency in Cape Town in 2013 with the Handspring Puppet Company (the team behind the acclaimed War Horse). It was worked on in New York, both at St Ann’s Warehouse and the Lincoln Center, before its première in Brisbane in 2016 where it enjoyed a sold-out run. It has also been performed in Sydney.
“Puppets and visual theatre go hand in hand,” say Morton and Nicholas Paine (also of Dead Puppets Society), “In a form devoted to using the theatrical elements in such a way that visuals are given the same importance as text, there often comes a time where non-human performers are necessary. We use puppets to expand the possibilities of what can be presented on stage. During our time in South Africa we were struck by how young Darwin was throughout his time on the Beagle. This man in his early twenties seemed to sit at such odds with the image of the elderly gent with a long grey beard, and we decided we wanted to tell this young man’s story.”
The cast of seven work with 30 handmade puppets that bring to life some of the wildlife seen by Darwin during his time overseas, demonstrating Earth’s complexity and celebrating it in all its forms.
“We use puppets to expand the possibilities of what can be presented on stage.”
As well as puppets, some of the original illustrations from the voyage will be projected to help visualise Darwin’s experiences, alongside a series of animations – all designed by Justin Harrison. The production also features a score from the ARIA Music Award winner Lior and LA-based producer Tony Buchen, which promises to transport audiences to some of the exotic lands that Darwin himself encountered on his momentous voyage.
A coming-of-age story like no other.
The Wider Earth runs at the Jerwood Gallery (Natural History Museum) from 2 October-30 December 2018. Tickets are available online or over the phone (0844 815 7141). Natural History Museum members are eligible for a 10% discount.