Writer and director: David Morton
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
The prime functions of theatre are said to be to entertain, educate and inform and David Morton’s production of The Wider Earth, first seen in Australia, makes a fairly good stab at ticking all three boxes. The fact that the Natural History Museum has created a space in its Darwin Centre especially for the show signals a solid seal of approval in the last two categories, but how does the show fare as entertainment?
The action covers the five-year period beginning in 1831, when the 22-year-old freshly graduated Charles Darwin sets sail as the naturalist on HMS Beagle to circumnavigate the globe. Acting as a sort of pre-television Sir David Attenborough, he reports back home on the exotic life that he encounters on distant shores. Turning to adventure in preference to a career in the clergy, Darwin asks “does the world really need another miserable priest?”, little knowing that the theories which he was to develop would make many more priests miserable by overturning teachings of the Old Testament.
Bradley Foster’s Darwin is so wholesome and unswervingly earnest that some may find him irritating, but Morton’s play has no room for baddies. Our hero’s girlfriend, Emma Wedgwood (Melissa Vaughan) is, we are told, instrumental in the movement to abolish slavery while the Beagle is away and even the creatures on display seem unnaturally friendly. We wonder where the fierce carnivores and venomous snakes might be hiding and kids who enjoy being scared are likely to be disappointed.
The opening scenes are unpromising, with stilted dialogue and wooden performances giving the flavour of a dull Jane Austen adaptation. However, when the voyage gets underway, butterflies start to flutter and birds start to soar, as the puppets of Morton’s Dead Puppets Society take over. Iguanas and giant turtles stride across the stage and the set, designed by Morton and Aaron Barton, revolves constantly, evolving into a rock to be clambered over and then a ship to sail through storms, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, as nature turns on itself.
Effects are created by projections, designed by Justin Harrison, and lighting, designed by Lee Curran. We see shoals of fish, large and small, swimming and cinema-style music composed by Lior and Tony Buchen, adds drama to the land and sea images. Both the magnificence of the natural world and the thrill of discovery are captured perfectly.
In spoken scenes, the production remains pedestrian. The characters of the Beagle’s Captain, Robert Fitzroy (Jack Parry-Jones), his second in command, John Wickham (Matt Tait), a slave taken on board, Jemmy (Marcello Cruz), Darwin’s father, Robert (Ian Houghton) and his mentor, Reverend John Henslow (Andrew Bridgmont) are all sturdy but under-developed. The play’s emphasis is always on simplistic storytelling, but Morton finds time to incorporate debates on the abomination of slavery and on the theological implications of the ideas, still at an embryonic stage, which Darwin is forming.
Aimed very clearly at younger audiences, Morton’s show is technically ingenious. It succeeds in its aim to stimulate interest in the natural world and, in so doing, it should also light up enthusiasm for the magic of live theatre. If a production is as stirring as this visually, we need to forgive it for the times when it feels a little stale dramatically.
Runs until 30 December 2018 | Image: Mark Douet