Review - The Wider Earth at the Natural History Museum
For the very first time, a theatre space has popped up inside one of the country’s grandest buildings: the Natural History Museum. Nestled between artefacts and exhibits is a new auditorium inside the versatile Jerwood Gallery, The Wider Earth takes us through the humble beginnings of one of the world’s greatest ever thinkers: Charles Darwin.
Leave the picture of the great bearded scientist at the door, here we meet a fresher-faced Darwin, just out of Cambridge having completed a degree in classics. His father pressuring him to marry and commit his life to the church, his professor hands him the opportunity to join a naval voyage as the ship’s naturalist. What follows is a five-year adventure across the globe, exploring uncharted lands and discovering new species every step of the way.
Darwin’s thoughts at this stage were far from his fully formed Origin of Species, but it was the basis of an incredible career, and absolute radical thinking. At a time when there was no question everyone was made in God’s image, Darwin’s ideas of gradual change were unheard of, bordering shameful. But discovering a host of creatures on the voyage, it was difficult for Darwin to deny the many possibilities zipping around the young scientist’s head.
The first thing to strike you in the production is the excellent use of surround sound in this long narrow space, as passages of Genesis are recited by different voices. However, during more hectic moments of the production, this becomes overpowering, and the actors seem to struggle to be heard over the cacophony of noise.
It does excel, however, with more stripped back production elements; Justin Harrison’s many imaginative puppets bring creatures from land and sea to life on stage. From pesky chameleons to fluttering butterflies, they offer some brilliant visuals, the best being a waist-high, lever-operated walking giant tortoise.
Writer David Morton directs a fast-flowing production too, a large screen wraps around the revolving stage meaning scene changes are as swift, and projections set the scene effortlessly. It does verge on the side of gimmicky at times, but a story focusing on Darwin’s relationship with knowledge, and dramas occurring on the ship avoid the production from feeling like a complete educational onslaught.
Morton’s story is careful to cover all bases of his journey: disagreements with the ship’s captain, the optics of suggesting the world might not be the result of intelligent design, the personal life Darwin left at home. It attempts to contextualise attitudes towards slavery during the period, but seems to gloss over it.
Bradley Foster is apt as a young Darwin, yet to find his place in the world and full of joy for nature, but it never quite feels like we get to know enough about Darwin as a person, outside his passions. He is the hero of this story, but it would be fascinating to delve a little deeper into Darwin’s psyche into his conflicts with faith and religion.
The Wider Earth is a fascinating tale, one that probably isn’t heard enough, and is brought into life in a really creative manner. It perhaps isn’t quite sure whether it wants to be an educational installation or a full-blown theatre production, but the limbo space it lies in is pleasantly enjoyable.
The Wider Earth tickets are available now.