Review: The Wider Earth
Image: The Wider Earth
Charles Darwin - Bradley Foster
Robert Darwin/Richard Matthews - Ian Houghton
Reverend John Henslow/ Sir John Herschel - Andrew Bridgmont
Robert FitzRoy - Jack Parry-Jones
Jemmy Button - Marcello Cruz
John Clements Wickham/ Adam Sedgwick - Matt Tait
Emma Wedgwood - Melissa Vaughan
Understudy - Rory Fairbairn
Understudy (Emma Wedgwood) - Kim Scopes
Join the 22-year-old Darwin on HMS Beagle's daring voyage to the far side of the world, and discover the gripping story behind one of the most important discoveries in history.
The Wider Earth features a cast of seven, remarkable puppetry, an original score and cinematic animations to bring to life uncharted landscapes in the theatrical event of 2018.
A new theatre in the Jerwood Gallery at the Natural History Museum will be unveiled for the European premiere of this award-winning drama.
This is a partnership project between Trish Wadley Productions, Dead Puppet Society and the Natural History Museum.
A few weeks ago, I got invited (along with others from the press pack) to take a sneak peak at what was going on in the Jerwood Gallery at The Natural History Museum (you can read my report of that visit here).
At that stage, only the central feature of Aaron Barton and David Morton's design was in place - shipped over by container from Australia (and, thankfully, not one of the 4, on average, which are lost in our oceans each day).
The bare but impressive room resounded with a definite echo, leaving us to strain a little to hear what the actors were saying during the 5 or so minutes of the script which we saw performed.
What struck me most on that occasion - apart from the clever design of the puppetry destined to be used in the show - was the energy and enthusiasm of the cast and creative team.
Since my early visit their energy - along, presumably, with that of a small army of creative and technical staff - has completely transformed the gallery.
Now, comfortable seating has been installed, raked for the most part, and the normal apparel of a theatrical venture - including a vast lighting rig - have been installed making the venue a real theatre.
And the echo I detected in the empty room has disappeared making every word (at least from where I was sitting) perfectly audible.
That transformation is, on its own, a remarkable achievement for the entire team who have spared no expense or effort to bring this story of Charles Darwin's voyage on HMS Beagle to life.
At the heart of the design is a brilliantly conceived rotating stage which houses HMS Beagle's deck and a cabin on one side, with the opposite facade sporting angled wooden panels that provide locations such as rocky outcrops on the islands that Darwin visited during his lengthy journey.
As the stage rotates, it creaks slightly but not unduly, suggesting the moaning sound of a leviathan as it drives through the oceans and ploughs through the wind.
Cast of The Wider Earth - photo by Mark Douet
Behind this central rotating structure is an enormous screen on which Justin Harrison's wonderfully imaginative and complex projections are displayed, providing us with maps of where we are in the voyage as well as seascapes of churning oceans, massive storms, volcanos errupting and the vast outer reaches of the starry universe.
The story relates to the five years that Darwin spent circumnavigating the globe on the sloop HMS Beagle, captained by Robert FitzRoy.
Darwin, perhaps, was not the obvious choice for the business of documenting the flora and fauna in new worlds far from his homeland.
But his natural inquisitiveness and talent for making connections - largely contrary to the theories and beliefs of his day - enabled him to develop his ideas about the mechanism whereby animals and plants evolve over time.
Bradley Foster as Charles Darwin - photo by Mark Douet
Bradley Foster certainly offers a youthful, motivated Darwin who questions not only the accepted doctrine and beliefs of the time, but also matters such as slavery and the cruel practices it involved.
Mr Foster's youthful inquisitiveness and enthusiasm for the natural world finds itself in conflict with his commander on the voyage, Jack Parry-Jones's Robert FitzRoy, a perfectionist charged by the Admiralty to chart unknown waters.
FitzRoy is a driven man, used to being obeyed, but we also discover he is a somewhat tortured persona, full of his own doubts.
There's good support from the remainder of the seven-strong cast who not only provide commendable characterisations, but also have to employ nimble and dextrous skill to manipulate the puppets.
With those features in evidence, it might be hard for some not to make a comparison with the enormously successful War Horse.
But such comparisons ought to be fleeting, even if there are similarities in some of the stylistic areas of this production.
The Wider Earth is a very different story, and its use of puppetry is restrained and woven carefully into David Morton's well-written narrative.
And, as director, he pulls together this complex work and it's many constituent parts with admirable finesse to deliver a wholly engaging piece which is both informative as well as a captivating and visually rich story.
The romantic connection between Emma Wedgwood and Darwin does give rise to a trace of schmaltz in the final moments, but doesn't grate unduly and actually confirms Darwin as mortal like the rest of us.
Full marks must also go to The Natural History Museum for having the courage and foresight to tackle this challenge - though it's no stranger to hosting inventive events and projects, let's hope it's not the last time that we find ourselves watching theatre in its hallowed halls.
Leaving The Wider Earth, it's impossible not to feel a sense of sorrow, since many of the wonders that Darwin discovered have already been adversely affected, and some (possibly) made extinct, by human activity.
Rising to the role of top dog in the evolutionary stakes, our species now has the awesome responsibility to determine what the future will hold for our planet and its vast array of extrordinary inhabitants.
And The Wider Earth, in documenting Darwin's incredible voyage and his amazing findings, may just help to motivate us to act decisively to preserve what's left.
Links and related content
ActDrop listing for Natural History Museum
Our show listing for The Wider Earth
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