Gorgeous puppet animals and a lot of exposition tell the story of Charles Darwin’s epic voyage on the HMS Beagle
We’re all so familiar with that photo of Charles Darwin – you know the one, it’s two-thirds beard – that we forget that the august father of the theory of evolution was ever a young, bright-eyed, idealistic man. In fact, when Darwin boarded the HMS Beagle for the five-year-voyage to South America, the Galápagos islands, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa that laid the foundations for his theory, he was only 22 years old.
Performed in a pop-up theatre in the actual Natural History Museum, ‘The Wider Earth’ follows the Beagle on its epic half-decade journey across the world. Young Darwin, played with declarative boyish earnestness by Bradley Foster, is a well-intentioned renegade with a lot of heart and rather less tact. The Beagle’s captain, a robust man of God named Robert FitzRoy (Jack Parry-Jones), has brought him aboard as the ship’s naturalist.
Darwin gets his credentials straight for the audience early on. He quarrels with his captain about slavery, thinking it the most horrible thing he was ever seen. He reacts with innocent wonder to nature’s riches around him. He’s loveable, if a bit predictably nice.
These gold standards of character have to be set up in order for the play to tackle the thorny problems of empire, colonialism, and the sheer bloody terror of discovering that Christian scripture might have the whole creation thing wrong. David Morton’s script is replete with leitmotifs and call-backs, and in those there is a glimpse of deep feeling, but it's about 80 percentexposition .
What lights the stage up is not the dialogue, which is occasionally inaudible under the soundtrack, but the gorgeous puppets by the Dead Puppet Society, and the outstanding stage design. Galápagos finches flit; stately giant tortoises march; schools of fishes twinkle between predatory sharks; a nervous armadillo curls up in a ball. The rotating wooden structure that dominates the stage transforms into mountain, cabin, rigging, house or rainforest, and its spin adds a vital sense of motion to the story. Scenery is projected onto a screen hanging above, seemingly sketched by hand, and the effect of the whole is pretty stupendous. In such carefully planned stagecraft, the awe and wonder of the young Darwin feels, just for a scene at a time, totally, humanly present.
|Venue name:||Natural History Museum|
|Opening hours:||Daily 10am-5.50pm (last admission 5.30pm)|
|Transport:||Tube: South Kensington|
|Price:||£19.50-£79.50, discounts for NHM members available|
Average User Rating
3.7 / 5
- 5 star:6
- 4 star:6
- 3 star:4
- 2 star:2
- 1 star:1
An absolutely fascinating play about the early life and voyages of Charles Darwin in a spectacular venue. The set design and puppetry are amazing and make the performance. The history of this story is charming and engaging and is highlight recommended if you are interested in Darwin and the theory of evolution.
Must see! Brilliant storytelling. Taken on the adventure. Brilliant retelling. On the way home my daughter couldn’t stop wondering how they made and worked the puppets.
I was excited to see this play as I'd never watched anything in the natural history museum before and the promise of an adventurous tale told through the medium of puppets was very enticing. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.
The revolving set, music and the screen backdrop were cleverly done. The puppets were also beautifully made and handled masterfully by the actors (I would have liked to see more). However, the dialogue and storytelling offered no excitement or originality. It was somehow both simultaneously difficult to follow whilst also lacking depth. In the second half I found myself looking forward to the end.
Not without merit, but definitely a missed opportunity to create something beautiful, original, and fresh!