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Review of The Wider Earth at The Natural History Museum

Just by googling Charles Darwin (1809-1882) – other search engines are available – the famous image of the scientist is evident: the sober look of a wise, bearded man with decades of accumulated knowledge. The Wider Earth could have chosen to capitalise on that familiar picture, and while some later arguments and counter-arguments about his well-known ‘On The Origin of Species’ may have made for some gritty and explosive theatre, this production instead focuses as much on the various species around the world as it does on the earlier years of Darwin’s career.

Darwin (a fresh-faced Bradley Foster) is portrayed here as an eager young man, who must still rely on the blessing of his father Robert (Ian Houghton) before he can even begin to satisfy his curiosity of what is now known as natural history. The show can be rather slow-paced in places (fair enough: it is, after all, a production about evolution), and gathering some exit poll opinions immediately after the press night performance, some had come to see the show with the intention of being amazed by the puppetry, and therefore found some of the details of Darwin’s life rather superfluous. I disagree: I found it interesting, for instance, that HMS Beagle, the ship on which Darwin was allowed passage on in order to travel the world and carry out geological and naturalist work, was itself on a voyage for the purposes of hydrography, such that the wider purpose of the mission as a whole every so often conflicted with Darwin’s work.

The Wider Earth at The Natural History Museum. Photo by Mark Douet

The Wider Earth at The Natural History Museum. Photo by Mark Douet

In the end, the species brought to life through puppetry, thanks to the Australia based Dead Puppet Society, while extraordinary, were on a par with the Cape Town based Handspring Puppet Company’s lifelike works in the National Theatre production of War Horse. In other words, London audiences have seen this sort of thing before. The key difference here is the sheer variety of animals, made necessary by the narrative, which admittedly gets a little relentless in revealing discovery after discovery. The production does, however, provide the salient points of a five-year voyage – without feeling too rushed – in just over a couple of hours.

There is a near-constant use of projections, which gives the show a sort of cinematic feel, though ironically, for all the illustrations and landscape views, one only really knows the difference between say, Berkeley Sound in the Falkland Islands and the Keeling Islands in the Indian Ocean because the projections display the location of a given scene by name. The set makes use of a revolve, and because of its tall structure, the top of which could, inventively, represent the top of a mountain, or otherwise an upstairs bedroom (amongst other things), the barricades of Les Misérables came to mind, at least for me. And then there was a struggle as Captain Robert FitzRoy (Jack Parry-Jones) and his crew cope with a severe sea storm – I’m not easily impressed by slow-motion movements, except if they’re done as parody and/or in the name of comedy, but this was very convincingly done.

It is, technologically and in terms of puppetry, a triumph. However, some of the characters seem a little underdeveloped. Darwin’s father is so diametrically opposed to his son’s desire to travel the world that when the voyage transpires to have been successful, his congratulatory stance almost seems out of character. There have been some alterations to certain details of the story, presumably as part of artistic license. For example, what precisely happened to the missionary Richard Matthews (1811-1893) (also Ian Houghton), at Tierra del Fuego in South America, differs in the production from the accounts made available online by the University of Cambridge’s ‘Darwin Correspondence Project’.

A London taxi driver once told me he’d seen the world despite only having been on a plane twice in his whole life, once to a wedding overseas, and then the flight back. This was because of travel documentaries and wildlife programmes on television that he enjoyed watching. This show is rather like that, a world trip in an evening. All things considered, there’s much to be enjoyed in a most informative and slick production.

4 Stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

The European premiere of the award-winning drama The Wider Earth tells the story of the rebellious young Charles Darwin, and opens for a limited season in a new theatre at the Natural History Museum.

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.

A cast of seven, remarkable puppetry, an original score, and cinematic animations all combine to bring to life uncharted landscapes in the theatrical event of 2018.

The Wider Earth
Performance Dates Tuesday 2nd October – Sunday 30th December 2018
Tuesday – Saturday, 7:30pm
Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, 2:30pm
Check website for exact schedule
Location Jerwood Gallery at the Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, Kensington, London SW7 5BD.

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Chris Omaweng

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