It is only fitting that a play about the voyage of Charles Darwin aboard the HMS Beagle is staged at the Natural History Museum. The trip that changed the fate of biology as we know it started in Plymouth in December 1831 and returned to Falmouth five years later in October 1836. These five years meant the start of Darwin’s development of his famous theories, and the rest is (evolutionary) history.
First staged in Australia, The Wider Earth has also touched down in South Africa before coming to London for its European premiere. The Natural History Museum has repurposed the Jerwood Gallery as a pop-up theatre, and it feels exactly the right place for a production like this, amongst the galleries on worldwide exploration.
The technical aspects of this production are certainly impressive, with a revolving set and a screen above it cleverly used for projections. However, the stars of the show were the puppets of the many animals Darwin encountered, designed by the Dead Puppet Society: an armadillo, a large iguana, giant tortoises, sharks, whales, and schools of fish. They added a wonderful magic to the show, and they should definitely get more stage time.
The main issues of this otherwise engaging and entertaining show are in relation to its first half hour and overall tone. Until Darwin embarks upon the Beagle, the narrative drags in cliched dialogues that make Bradley Foster’s Darwin feel too childish to be realistic. The moment the boat (sorry, ship) sails off, the show improves vastly, with imaginative set changes that create the illusion of visiting many exotic locations. Once Act II begins, the narrative toys with falling into the repetitive – new place, new animals, unanswered questions – until the more intense intellectual debates begin in earnest. For a show aimed at a family audience, some of the arguments being had – on slavery and the role of God in changing nature – can be a bit difficult to get, particularly for children. But, on the flip side, it is interesting that these important controversies are addressed, even if a bit naively.
Both Foster as Darwin and Jack Parry-Jones as Captain Robert FirzRoy provide the necessary conflicting portrayals of the wide-eyed naturalist and the religious believer in the British Empire. Their clashes drive the narrative forward, aided by characters like Jemmy Button (Marcello Cruz), from Tierra del Fuego; and missionary Richard Matthews (Ian Houghton), sent to convert the natives of Jemmy’s homeland.
The Wider Earth, although marred by some slopping story-telling and a certain indecisiveness, has many moments of wonder and spectacle. The puppets are gorgeous, the projections immersive, and the set resourceful. A beautiful package for a thrilling voyage to the unknown.
The Wider Earth is playing at the Jerwood Gallery, Natural History Museum, until December 30. For more information and tickets, see here.