It was a pleasure and a privilege to witness an extended scene from the new drama The Wider Earth this evening, along with an opportunity to ask questions to the actors and creatives as a group and individually.
In the planning for five years, this play about the young Charles Darwin has made the journey from Cape Town to London, via New York and Sydney, and marries puppetry, a revolving set, a busy and talented cast of seven (three of which were previously in the National Theatre smash-hit War Horse), and projected animations.
What we saw tonight was a set partly in situ in rehearsal mode, before it gets its masking, lighting rig, full staging, smoke effects, and all the bells and whistles. We saw butterflies and a very personable iguana, and the seeds of a battle of wills between Bradley Foster’s Charles Darwin and Jack Parry-Jones’ Robert FitzRoy around the state of slaves from the British Empire.
Foster has a background in movement, having worked with Katie Mitchell at the Royal Opera House since graduating from drama school a couple of years ago: this is his first major leading role, and on this brief excerpt he looks very much like an actor to watch, engaging with the new creatures he finds on his HMS Beagle voyage with wonder, and unafraid to step up for injustice.
The remainder of the cast both act and perform as puppeteers, a role Melissa Vaughan (Emma Wedgewood, who became Darwin’s wife) describes as “difficult” and “terrifying”, although Marcello Cruz (Jemmy) describes the puppets as “part of the cast”, and the novice puppeteers among the actors speak of their willingness to learn new skills and add to their repertoire.
The creatives from the Dead Puppets Society, Nicholas Paine and David Morton, were mentored by War House puppet supremos Handspring, and have developed a show which has played Queensland, Sydney Opera House, and now, thanks to the ingenuity and contacts of producer Trish Wadley, it is set to open in the impressive Jerwood Gallery at the Natural History Museum.
At close quarters, the puppets are deeply impressive, and took life through computer programming and careful, thoughtful, human intervention. The larger puppets take up to five cast members to animate (Perry-Jones described a sequence with a shark and a large sea creature which would glow with energy with full sound and lighting effects), the smaller, like the iguana we saw, develop their own personalities at the hands of one performer.
The Wider Earth opens on the 2nd October and is booking until the end of 2018. It is a chance to see a unique type of theatre production in the stunning surroundings of the Victorian palace of curiosities which is the Natural History Museum.