Charles Darwin was an English scientist and natural historian. It therefore makes sense that when the directors of The Wider Earth were deciding where to house a play about Darwin’s life, they settled on non other than London’s Natural History Museum in South Kensington. The Wider Earth is the tale of Charles Darwin’s voyage on the HMS Beagle which took him all around the world, through the Galapagos Islands and down to Antarctica. The voyage became the cornerstone for his theory of evolution and our starting point for understanding the order of nature. The theatre hall sits just next to the Darwin Centre in the Natural History Museum, where several specimens that Darwin collected during his 5-year expedition still remain in glass jars. Altogether, The Wider Earth is a beautiful re-telling of the story of a young man on a big adventure. From the onset, the play did an excellent job in casting Darwin’s story in its wider social and historical context. This production not only told the tale of a young scientist, but of 19th century Britain and the wider forces at play, quietly shaping young Darwin’s mind. It explored the history of the anti-slavery movements in London and the loosening grip of the Church on British life in the face of an increasingly secular-minded and scientific society.
“Intricately made puppets embodying the creatures Darwin met on his travels”
The cast were enthralling and lively. In particular, Jack Parry-Jones (playing Fitzroy, the captain of the Beagle) and Ian Houghton (playing both Darwin’s father and the Priest on-board the Beagle) delivered performances with striking conviction. We saw the strength of Fitzroy’s beliefs and the internal struggle he had with accepting the new ideas proposed to him by Darwin which contradicted his religious principles. His character, well written, was not linear or predictable. Instead we saw his emotions unfold in a truly messy, human and believable way. Darwin (played by Bradley Foster) was portrayed with admirable energy, and was a central component of every scene. He bounced about the stage, embodying the eagerness and enthusiasm of a young man on the cusp of great discoveries. We felt, however, that the writing of his character was slightly one-dimensional and under-cooked. We saw only fleeting moments of Darwin’s uncertainty and self-doubt. Beyond these brief glimpses of character depth, we felt that Darwin was portrayed only as a curious, naïve and rebellious young explorer without much else to accompany his youthful spirit. As a result, we only got to know Darwin on a superficial level. A critical and more complex exploration of Darwin’s character would have been welcome. The visual effects accompanying the performance were undeniably striking. Behind the rotating stage was a digital backdrop, changing from scene to scene. The moving images were effective in charting the journey for the audience and also gave us a glimpse into what Darwin might have been scribbling into his journal as he made this long voyage of discovery. They showed the vast expanses of the Atlantic sea and the edges of the many islands that the Beagle docked at. However, we felt that this at times took away from our autonomy as an audience to imagine these scenes for ourselves, which is an important part of the experience of being at the theatre rather than watching a movie at the cinema.
“An excellent skeleton story of a great man on a great adventure”
Music was used with a light touch, both to slow down the pace of the play and also to add tension. One moment in particular stood out to us, as the ship met a storm in the Galapagos and was plunged underwater. Lighting, sound and acting were used in seamless conjunction to create a truly memorable theatrical experience. As audience members, we suddenly felt the danger of being in a storm at sea and realised quite how fragile expeditions such as this were. One of the main attractions of the production, the intricately made puppets embodying the creatures Darwin met on his travels, were breath-taking and expertly handled by cast members. As we arrived in the Galapagos, there were so many different creatures on stage that it was hard to know which to look at. Our eyes were naturally drawn to the giant turtles, which were truly majestic. The puppets were beautiful and moved convincingly both on ground and underwater, at times making us feel like we were swimming underwater alongside the creatures. Overall this piece was an enjoyable watch and extremely immersive. Our only bugbear was that Darwin and his own thoughts were left slightly under-explored, but that is perhaps to be expected when trying to tell the story of a five-year expedition in two hours. We would definitely recommend going and seeing it for yourself, particularly if you are unfamiliar with the story of this truly remarkable British figure. It provides an excellent skeleton story of a great man on a great adventure.
The Wider Earth will be performing in the Jerwood Gallery at the National History Museum until 30th December 2018, tickets and further information can be found here.