Sunday 10 February 2019

REVIEW: The Wider Earth

I'm very late to get on the bandwagon with this one. The Wider Earth began showing in October and was intended to continue only until the end of the year, but thankfully has been extended to the 24th of February, meaning that there will be both time to take the kids in half term, and for it to commemorate Darwin's birthday on Tuesday the 12th.

For my own birthday (two weeks early, in fact, but busy lives these days), my lovely lady Suzanne took me to see the play. Written by David Morton, who co-founded the Dead Puppet Society that realises the production, the play is held in the Natural History Museum, and appropriate venue if ever there was one, in a gallery-turned-theatre for this short run. A small but remarkable rotating set holds the production, swivelling between the wilds of nature and the confines of civilisation in front of a panoramic screen which shows graphics, maps and captions. We were sat very near the front, where the screen is somewhat obscured by the set but with a fantastic view of the actors and puppetry.

Bradley Foster plays the young Charles Darwin, in a story which takes him from the end of his college days, through the HMS Beagle's five-year mission and back to England. Darwin is so often visualised as a venerable old man, full of beard, that it's easy to forget that he was only twenty-two when he set out on his voyage on the Beagle. Foster plays him with youthful enthusiasm and wonder, a little twee at times but always charming. The rest of the cast fulfil multiple roles. For instance the elder statesmen of the show, Ian Houghton and Andrew Bridgmont; the former plays Darwin's father and Christian missionary Richard Matthews, and the latter plays three roles, of Darwin's teacher Prof. Henslow, his friend, the physicist and astronomer John Herschel, and a sailor on the Beagle. As well as this, the cast beyond Foster also work as puppeteers, animating the remarkable contraptions that form the animals of the play, from marine iguana to giant tortoises to the ancient Glyptodon. The use of puppets to recreate animals from Tierra del Fuego to Galapagos to Australia is the most remarkable part of the production (even though a side effect of using the main cast is that it sometimes looks like Darwin's crewmates are playing an elaborate prank on him).

The script is heavy in the exposition but performed with enough enthusiasm that it works and never bores. While Darwin is given enormous credit for changing the face of science, the play makes it clear he did not act alone, building on the observations and theories of Charles Lyall and other naturalists. There's also some social commentary to the play, touching not only on the expected spiritual debate but the then-contemporary debates of slavery and "civilising" the other peoples of the world. It's wrapped up in the adventures and crises of the Beagle's voyage, eventful and powerful in itself - the story of Captain Robert FitzRoy (Jack Parry-Jones) is a fascinating tale in itself, and he was only four years older than Darwin.

The best part, though, was seeing kids enraptured by everything that was happening in front of them. A captivating production.

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