Last month I was lucky enough to be invited to a pre-preview of some scenes from The Wider Earth, together with a Q&A with the cast and a chance to meet some of the amazing puppets from the Dead Puppet Society up close.
Now the production is fully open, and I’ve been invited back to report on the finished article. The Jerwood Gallery at the Natural History Museum has been turned into a theatre which seats roughly 300 people in a mix of floor and raised seating, and the rotating set we saw in previews has now been augmented by lighting, a backdrop for animation, and an immersive soundscape.
David Morton’s play has previously played in Australia, following periods of mentoring in Cape Town with Handspring (creators of the puppets used in War Horse), and further planning in New York. There is a cast of seven and a number of puppets with personality – including an iguana, butterflies, birds (small and large), fish, armadillos, a duck-billed platypus, and two large Galapagos tortoises.
Bradley Foster, as the young Charles Darwin leaving the chance of theological study behind to join a round-the-world voyage on HMS Beagle, is the only member of the cast who doesn’t have puppeteer duties; the rest (some of which have previous experience in the area) do well in making these curious creatures come to life. It’s also his first leading role and he does well in portraying the young man who grows in knowledge and understanding as he sails.
As we move from Cambridge, where Darwin makes a friend of the Professor (Andrew Bridgmont) who can see his quality and inspires his curiosity, to the Manor where Darwin senior (Ian Houghton) only sees the priesthood as destination for his wayward child, the hill where Darwin promises fidelity and marriage to his beloved Emma (Melissa Vaughan), and onto the ship, we watch as sketches build the landscape behind the stage.
Once on the voyage, captained by the religious and constrained FitzRoy (Jack Parry-Jones), Darwin starts to gain a new understanding of the world around him and the power of nature, as each island landing brings new creatures to study, with their modifications to suit their landscape. The Revd Matthews (also Houghton), who is on a mission back to Tierra del Fuego to bring Christianity to the “savages”, sees only the power of the Lord, and Jemmy (Marcello Cruz), bought and paid for, only sees a need for returning to his home. John Clements Wickham (Matt Tait), the second in command on the ship, attempts to be a voice of reason between opposing factions.
The Wider Earth does not assume to give answers about the power of creation, but sows the seeds for the lifetime work Charles Darwin undertook after stepping back on British soil after his five years on the HMS Beagle. His theories of evolution and of natural selection started by studying beetles, rocks and fauna of unfamiliar terrains, but his account of his work on the Beagle brought him fame and attention.
If I had a small quibble about this show, it is that just occasionally the sound piped through speakers around the Gallery overpower the actors on stage, but this only affects a couple of scenes, and I don’t think anything of the sense of the production is lost. The puppets can be clearly seen and appreciated due to clever lighting and the gifted manipulation of their cast operators, and the story is interesting and easily understandable, even to younger audience members (10 and above).
The programme (£7) is full of information on the genesis of The Wider Earth, and the journey it has taken so far. David Morton skillfully directs his own work, and the music by Lior and Tony Buchen fits in with the nature theme without feeling superfluous or inappropriate.
The Wider Earth runs at the Natural History Museum until the 30 December 2018; you can purchase tickets here.