First announced back in July, David Morton’s play about Charles Darwin will be settling in at the Natural History Museum at the beginning of next month in a brand new theatre space on site. With casting now confirmed, and rehearsals in full swing, the Dead Puppet Society invited us in for a behind-the-scenes peek last Friday evening. The lucky few of us in the room were treated to a snippet of the play, followed by a short Q&A session with David Morton, Nicholas Paine and the cast, plus the chance to wander round the theatre to take a look at the stage & a selection of the puppets.
The development of The Wider Earth
This production at the Natural History Museum is the European première of the play, but it was actually first performed (in its entirety) in the company’s native Australia. “We were on our way to a residency at St Ann’s Warehouse in New York, and we were sort of looking for a concept we could use to create large-scale piece of visual theatre that called for a large number of animal puppets”, says David Morton. “We were talking late one night with Basil Jones, the Executive Director of Handspring, and he mentioned that not many people knew that Charles Darwin was a 22-year-old man when he set sail on the five-year voyage on the Beagle – and we were two of those people who didn’t know he was that young when he set sail! It sounded like a story that had to be told.”
The show’s initial development took place at St Ann’s Warehouse, before holding readings at the Lincoln Center (also in New York). The Wider Earth made its full debut at the Queensland Theatre in Brisbane, and earlier this year it had a run in Sydney.
As this theatre (affectionately named the Beagle Theatre by the cast & crew) is being put together specifically for the show, the Jerwood Gallery will end up being unrecognisable to previous visitors. Morton explains, “At the moment we’re working on the revolve, and there’s also another structure that comes up to lift this section up to the same height as the revolve which has built-in lighting and smoke effects that we use to change the environment. There’s also, behind the set, an enormous panoramic projection screen, where we’ll see illustrations that are done in the style of Conrad Martens, who was the artist on The Beagle – he captured a lot of landscapes that they visited, so we use it to show maps, to set location, to give a backdrop to the action as it goes, but also it comes to represent Darwin’s internal thought space. There are a number of sequences in the show where we explore this on that projection screen. Our sound designer, Tony Brumpton, isn’t here, but he’s creating this immersive environmental surround design that makes you feel like you’re a part of the environments that were visited.”
As you can see from the 3D render of the auditorium, the stage will be end-on with two sets of seating: a few rows on the same level, situated in front of a bank of raked seating. There will also be a full lighting and sound rig installed. Given that the team never really considered presenting the show anywhere that wasn’t a theatre of some kind, it’s incredible how things have managed to fall into place.
In all, there are about 30 different puppets in the show – and they’re made up of around 10,000 individual pieces!
The design and construction of the puppets has been split between Australia and the Natural History Museum. Creative Producer Nicholas Paine explains, “The puppets took about 18 months to design and they’re all designed primarily on computer as individual pieces. Then all the individual pieces get sent to a laser cutter and get sent back on giant boards (like a very complicated IKEA!) and are put together. In Australia we spent about 8 months on construction, but we’ve also been working with the team here.” Excitingly, the play could potentially run for a six-month season before the Jerwood Gallery is reclaimed for special exhibition.
“We’ve created doubles of most of the puppets,” continues Paine, “and we did that here at the Natural History Museum conservation studio, so people could talk with us while we were making the puppets. Primarily all the designs were done back in Australia.” Some of the designs were inspired by travel to some of the places visited by Darwin himself, such as the Galápagos and South America.
Whilst puppetry is an important skill that the performers will need to employ, the team were keen to stick to the mantra of having actors alongside puppets, rather than solely using puppeteers. “What I think is amazing about the group of people here telling the story is that there’s a mix of people who are both very experienced and those with no puppetry experience,” says Paine.
Introducing the cast
Melissa Vaughan (Emma Wedgwood/sailor) was one such newbie: “At first – I’m sure you won’t mind me saying, guys – I was absolutely terrified! But the way the company have crafted them, they do most of the work for you. At first newbies try to do loads and loads, but actually the less you do the more the puppets do.”
“I was relatively new to it,” says Marcello Cruz (Jemmy), “I’d done a tiny bit – I really enjoy it! I think it’s nice as a performer having something else to focus on as well as your part, so if you want to take a little bit of a break from that you can think: ‘What does an armadillo think? What does an iguana think?’ It’s really fascinating watching YouTube videos, as you realise nature is phenomenal. Like the platypus; it’s the weirdest animal! It’s the weirdest thing when you see how they move, it’s like a part-bird/part-rodent kind of amalgamation, so that’s really interesting.”
Several members of the cast have previously performed in War Horse, so animal puppetry is not new to them at all. AB: “You get quite attached to your own individual puppets”, explains Andrew Bridgmont (Henslow/Herschel/sailor). “They’ve all got names! They do a lot of the work themselves – it’s great fun, a great learning experience.” Matt Tait (Wickham) expands, “Once you get over the technical aspect of it you treat it like another character, so you do the same things that you’d do with an actor: what it wants, what it doesn’t want, what it likes, what it doesn’t like.” In Jack Parry-Jones’ eyes “it’s like a relationship”!
Parry-Jones (Fitzroy) is another of the cast who’s new to puppets, and when asked what the worst thing about using them is, the rest of the company immediately looked at him. “I’m a novice, but I’m starting to get the hang of them and really enjoy it”, he explains, “But when I first had to manoeuvre the giant tortoise the leg fell off it, which almost put me off for life! I cursed that thing, and we’ve gone through some terrible times, but I think now we’re on the straight and narrow… Hopefully when we get to the show it’ll be alright! But it’s been fun.”
In terms of what attracted the company to the project, it’s fairly clear that the passion and enthusiasm that Morton & Paine brought to the table was a pretty big factor for everyone. On top of this, the idea of enlightening audiences about Darwin ‘before the beard’ was fascinating. “You know about Charles Darwin but you don’t know about the other characters involved in his journey,” enthuses Cruz, “I never knew about Jemmy Button, and there is this wealth of information about him and Fitzroy… I think part of the journey is about these other characters that helped him on his way to discover this insane theory.”
“There’s a really lovely atmosphere amongst us all,” continues Parry-Jones, “We seem to be coming in almost every day saying, ‘You’ll never guess what I just found out!’ – they managed to do this, and do that… It just seems as if people were so accomplished back then, and then you look at your life and think ‘I’m just playing about on a stage’. These characters are so interesting, there’s such a wealth of knowledge and research that you can mine, it’s so useful.”
Performing at the Natural History Museum also has its perks, by the sounds of it, as they’re enjoying getting to stay there after hours – despite it feeling slightly odd (not helped by one of the museum’s sleepover events they were greeted with the other day!). The team have also been taken on a tour of parts of the museum, and highly recommend visiting the Spirit Collection if you ever have the chance.
Behind the scenes
As you probably know by now, puppets are kind of my thing… So entering the Jerwood Gallery space and finding myself surrounding by an array of creatures from The Wider Earth was the equivalent of Christmas for me. Add to that my background in Human Genetics (evolution was my absolute specialty), and this is practically the perfect show for me – it’s not often that you get to sneak a peek at something like this either.
It was also lovely to see a familiar face in Marcello, who kindly introduced me to the as yet unnamed sea lion puppet (any ideas?). Slightly unnerved by the giant tortoise incident, I had a tentative play – and particularly liked the fact that you can make his mouth open & shut via a rod attached to his head! It was also interesting to learn that they’ve been doing their rehearsals in reverse; as the company need to test out the revolve, they began with tech prior to the usual rehearsal period.
All in all, this was a wonderful insight into what is shaping up to be a brilliantly crafted show. It definitely whet my appetite – and I can’t wait to see these wonderful performers (& puppets) in action next month!
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.