If you think of Charles Darwin, the immediate image that likely comes to mind is that of a white-haired & bearded man who has published On the Origin of Species to acclaim and controversy in the 19th century. What’s less well known is Darwin’s earlier life, in particular his days aboard the HMS Beagle – rather strange, considering this voyage must have been a key turning point in his life and a catalyst for his theory of evolution by natural selection. Dead Puppet Society’s David Morton has sought to redress the balance with their play The Wider Earth, which has now begun a run at the Natural History Museum in London, following engagements in Brisbane and Sydney.
Charles Darwin gas scraped through his Classics degree at Cambridge, devoting most of his spare time to developing his beetle collection and fostering a growing interest in geology. Initially reluctant, his father gives permission (and funds) for Charles to become the naturalist on board the HMS Beagle, joining Captain FitzRoy’s voyage to the Americas. Charles leaves behind possible fiancée Emma Wedgwood to pursue his dreams, hoping she’ll be waiting for him on his return. The trip also has a religious & imperial element to it, as Tierro del Fuego native Jemmy Button is set to be returned to his homeland to spread the word of God with missionary Richard Matthews, the view being that the populace are savages who need the enlightenment of Christianity. The ship visits fascinating new environments – and Darwin’s detailed observations begin to take on more meaning than he could have thought possible prior to the expedition.
This is a fun-filled adventure, full of wonder, for the whole family. It does take a little while to get going, as the opening scenes are devoted to a bit of exposition and exploring the background to the story of the voyage; it’s a nice idea to show it as Charles recounting his adventures to Emma upon his return, although she would surely have known about Charles’ pre-journey preparations. However, given Darwin’s meticulous note-taking and the time he took to finally compile & publish his Earth-shattering book, you can definitely believe he was the kind of man who has to tell a story from the beginning, regardless of his audience. And once it gets onto the HMS Beagle voyage itself the play really steps up a gear.
Even though these events took place less than 200 years ago, we must remember that it was a different time – attitudes towards religion, empire and humanity have changed since then. The religious element of the story is handled quite sensitively, doing just enough to demonstrate the prevailing feeling of the time as well as question whether people should try to think in a different way.
You couldn’t ask for a better venue in which to tell this story (hopefully the first of many theatrical productions hosted by the Natural History Museum), as the Jerwood Gallery has been completely transformed – even since I snuck in behind the scenes last month. Aaron Barton’s set design sees an incredible wooden construction that evokes everything from the mountains in a far-flung country to the HMS Beagle; the revolve allows for some incredible reveals, as well as ensuring smooth transitions between scene and location.
It works especially well with Justin Harrison’s cinematic projections up on a screen surrounding the stage at the back (though if you’re in the front bank of seats these can be a bit obscured at times), in combination with some gloriously colourful lighting design from Lee Curran (UK) and David Walters. Darwin’s notebook lighting up as he opens it to consider the latest marvels he has seen give a particularly wonderful look as colours, designs and maps surround him. Tony Brumpton’s sound design immerses you in Darwin’s story, with a soundscape that envelopes you from start to finish.
The puppets are, of course, a big draw; the Dead Puppet Society’s designs celebrate the intricacies of the animals, as well as allowing them to move accurately. Their quirky looks definitely steal focus before you even consider how they’re being manipulated and moved around. The cast demonstrate excellent puppetry skills – they’ve clearly got to know their puppets very well, and really taken on board how the real versions might move. And there are a lot to keep track of! The iguana & armadillo are very cheeky characters, the whale is just as majestic as you would expect, and the flutter of butterflies (yes, that’s the genuine collective noun!) create a stunning effect as Darwin disturbs them and they take flight. Plus I’ll always have a soft spot for the sea lion (now named Squeaky), having been previously introduced! The whole collection is a puppet-lover’s dream, and shows the level of innovation you can achieve in that field.
The cast of seven tell the story excellently, balancing their own roles with puppetry from scene to scene. As the uprooted Jemmy Button, Marcello Cruz shows signs of an inner conflict between his old life and the new values he’s been taught – the sadness in Cruz’s portrayal is very moving, as you see a young man struggling to work out where he now belongs. Jack Parry-Jones gives FitzRoy a rather military bearing, at different times anatagonist & ally to Darwin, though you also see some foreshadowing of his later life (such as his depression and religious fervour), the groundworks of which could easily have been laid at this time. Bradley Foster’s performance as the youthful Charles Darwin leads the audience into this life-changing adventure with a seemingly untameable curiosity & enthusiasm, staring in wide-eyed wonder at the array of exotic wildlife he encounters, and passionately defending his principles & opinions.
My verdict? A fun-filled adventure for all the family, lifting the lid on a lesser known part of the life of Charles Darwin – the puppetry is simply extraordinary.
The Wider Earth runs at the Jerwood Gallery (Natural History Museum) until 30 December 2018. Tickets are available online or over the phone (0844 815 7141). Natural History Museum members are eligible for a 10% discount.