We've seen so many portraits of Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, with a bushy silver beard, that it's difficult to imagine him as anything but a grizzled old man. But once, he was a young scamp, full of dreams and doubts, and it is to this portion of his life that The Wider Earth, presented by the Queensland Theatre Company and Dead Puppet Society, turns.
The Wider Earth is a reimagining of Darwin's voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, which he joined as an amateur naturalist upon the urging of one of his university professors. The five-year expedition, from the Galapagos Islands to the Amazon and beyond, was ostensibly undertaken to map the coastline of South America. However, as a result of the notes, sketches, and specimens Darwin amassed, the voyage in fact served as the incubator for a revolutionary theory which ultimately changed the world.
Darwin's theory of evolution is now so thoroughly accepted (well, except in the hundreds of American schools where creationism still forms a core part of the curriculum) that it's easy to overlook the social milieu into which Darwin launched his life's work, and the strength of opposition he faced. Raised as a creationist in Victorian England, with a career as an Anglican parson mapped out for him by his God-fearing father, it is also difficult to fully appreciate the depths of Darwin's internal struggles as the evidence for his controversial ideas mounted. It is this latter conflict which The Wider Earth so brilliantly brings to life.
Thomas Larkin with one of more than 30 custom-created puppets feature in the production.
Written, directed and co-designed by David Morton, The Wider Earth features casting that is, frankly, flawless. Tom Conroy, as Charles Darwin, powerfully portrays a 20-something Darwin in all his complexity - his youthful enthusiasm, his fascination for the natural world, his spiritual agony upon uncovering truths that could no longer be denied. He is ably complemented by Lauren Jackson (as Emma Wedgwood), Margi Brown Ash, Thomas Larkin, David Lynch, Jonty Martin, Anthony Standish and Anna Straker. A total of 30 custom-created puppets also play starring roles in this production - from the tiniest longhorn beetle to the majestic southern right whale and the ancient Galapagos tortoise.
The action in The Wider Earth unfolds on a rotating stage, the centrepiece of which is an asymmetrical, shape-shifting mass of wood which alternately serves as the bow of the ship, the cosy interior of an English country home, or mountains, cliffs, and other geological structures Darwin traverses in search of his specimens. Behind the stage is a backdrop featuring watercolour illustrations of the ever-changing terrain. This, in conjunction with the actors' dialogue, and voiced extracts from Darwin's own diaries, offers audience members an immersive multimedia experience. Kudos to creative producer Nicholas Paine, co-designer Aaron Barton, lighting designer David Walters, composers Lior and Tony Buchen, sound designer Tony Brumpton and AV/ animation designer Justin Harrison.
Running for two hours, including a 20-minute interval, The Wider Earth is an uplifting tale told in visually spectacular fashion. Only a limited number of tickets remain, but given the standing ovation this performance received, I'd hope to see it stretch beyond the dates and venue currently advertised. It really is something special.
Actors performed double-duties as puppeteers during the production. Image courtesy of Queensland Theatre Company.