Entering into the world of The Wider Earth is like journeying back in time to a near-magical landscape, a landscape that it is hard to believe is still the one we inhabit today.
The play follows the story of Charles Darwin on his maiden voyage around the world on The Beagle, a ship on a long journey to complete many conflicting missions. In a time when religious doctrine reigned science, it is on this voyage that Darwin uncovers the evidence that leads to his theory of natural selection.
Played by Tom Conroy, it is intriguing to learn more about Darwin’s possible motives, fears and insecurities through this intimate portrait of his early working years. The character is well written, not too much the bland everyman nor too densely scientific, but an optimistic and bright young man terribly eager to prove himself and steadfast in his passions. Conroy brings him to life with an energy that draws the eye and a vulnerability that makes the audience instantly give their empathy.
The Wider Earth also plays host to a cast of puppets which bring to life the natural world that Darwin explores. As expected from a Dead Puppet Society production, the puppets are masterfully created pieces of art. Almost mechanical in design, the creatures are structured out of wood, leather and cables, giving a skeletal appearance that hides no part of the operating processes of the puppeteers bringing them to life. Each finished with a pair of rich and wise obsidian glass eyes, to life the animals do spring, and it is these living, breathing beings that enable us to see fresh the beauty of nature as Darwin does.
Along a wide ship’s sail above the stage, images of lands and creatures just discovered are sketched as in Darwin’s journal, along with his notes and unsolved questions. Anna Straker, who does a wonderful job leading the cast as Puppet Captain, proves herself multi-talented as the illustrator of this projected work, animated by Justin Harrison. Without drawing attention away from the puppets or action on stage, it is hard not to want to watch more of this fascinating window into Darwin’s work as he begins to join the dots of his discoveries and trace his way towards his ultimate conclusion.
An element of the show that could have been given more careful emphasis is the audio. A mixture of voiceover and music created by co-composers Tony Buchen and Lior, at times the voiceover, an older Darwin reflecting on his maiden voyage, competes with the music to be heard and onstage action for attention. The convention, established at the beginning of the play, is designed to place the audience within the story that most will already be familiar with. Throughout the show, though, it needs to either hold its own and draw full attention or cease, as important details can be missed in the excitement of all that is happening in the production.
The set design of this show, by Aaron Barton and David Morton, should not be overlooked. A rotating wooden mass that gives shape to ship, mountains, cliffs and English country houses, it appears deceptively simple. The versatile structure allows space and levels for even the tiniest of puppets to make their presence felt, while the actors roam across all manner of landscapes created ably by the large structure.
The world of The Wider Earth is vast and secretive, yet it is a story told with a great intimacy and energy. An apt reminder of humanity’s ongoing use of story to provide a structure and understanding of the world, this is dramatic storytelling at its most magical.
Queensland Theatre Company and Dead Puppet Society present
The Wider Earth
by David Morton
Director David Morton
Venue: Bille Brown Studio | QTC 78 Montague Road, South Brisbane
Dates: 9 July – 7 August 2016