Portrait

The duo behind a production that explores Charles Darwin’s voyage aboard the HMS Beagle. By Christopher Currie.

Puppetry of the genus

David Morton and Nick Paine move with a spry, kinetic energy. Somehow they’re still standing despite it being only a handful of days until the first performance of The Wider Earth, a major visual theatre production telling the story of Charles Darwin’s first voyage on the HMS Beagle. That is the official version. David and Nick, however, lovingly refer to the show as “a period piece with puppets”.

The morning I visit them, they’ve just moved into their official performance space at Queensland Theatre Company’s Bille Brown Studio. They usher me into the theatre and I’m immediately greeted with a blast of stirring orchestration – a taste of the show’s score, developed by singer-songwriter Lior and music producer Tony Buchen – that echoes impossibly against the nearly empty room. I marvel at the stage, which even the cast is yet to see, an obtusely levelled wooden construction: a ship’s deck on one side, a textured landscape on the other. The whole stage is designed to revolve, Nick tells me, about 80 times during the show. Behind his back, David, the show’s director, gestures higher suggesting their universe has gained a few new revolutions in rehearsal.

Backstage, there’s a potent air of excitement. A grizzled technician – a clichéd stagehand with a sagging tool belt and a complex forearm cast suggesting chronic fracture – walks past and gives me a huge unadulterated grin. Suddenly, as we turn a corner, I see why. Against one wall hangs a southern right whale, a Galápagos shark and a school of tiny fish. The rest of the puppets – some 35 different species of animal – populate the remainder of the hall.

The best way to describe them, as I succinctly and audibly observe, is “fucking extraordinary”. David appears with an armadillo, making it walk and noodle its head before curling up in a ball. Every animal is thoughtfully and meticulously articulated, each transformed into an operational simulacrum of the natural creature, as if Noah decided to save time and make all the animals out of the ark. Nick tells me it took six fabricators working full-time for six months to make the puppets from laser-cut wood, wire and leather, completing each animal with a twinkling obsidian eye.

The genesis of The Wider Earth came after David and Nick – artistic director and executive producer respectively of visual theatre and design house Dead Puppet Society – quit full-time work in 2012 to take a three-month trip to South Africa, where they spent time with Handspring Puppet Company, which designed and fabricated puppets for the immensely popular War Horse stage show. While in Cape Town, they visited the one-time home of English astronomer Sir John Herschel, whereupon they happened on a determined portrait of a young, fresh-faced man. They were astonished when their host informed them that the man in the picture was Charles Darwin.

“Like most everyone else,” Nick says, “we imagined Darwin as the guy with the great white beard. We were inspired to tell the story of this young man who set off on the Beagle when he was only 22, not knowing his voyage would forever change the world.”

The show’s research took David and Nick from Ecuador to the Galápagos Islands to Tasmania, as they retraced important sites along Darwin’s journey of discovery. The six weeks in the Galápagos were especially important, allowing them to study the movement of its fauna in situ – although Nick assures me there was still “lots of watching YouTube clips of animals” – inspiring the visual design process that so much of the show would depend on.

The work was developed for a further eight months in residence at St Ann’s Warehouse in New York, before QTC commissioned the full work, allowing David and Nick to workshop the story and dialogue with trained actors.

The highlight of my visit was meeting the show’s pièce de résistance, a life-size Galápagos tortoise. David operates the puppet with and without its carapace, which itself is made up of 180 individual pieces, and I can only marvel at the puppet’s ingenuity. The inner workings of the tortoise are a mad co-operation of hard physics, delicate balance and brute engineering. The end result is breathtaking.

To call The Wider Earth a labour of love is insultingly inadequate. As well as its technical mastery, its message seems to be equally important to its makers. Nick, as creative producer of the show, seems best placed to sum it up. “We think the show is arriving at quite a significant time,” he tells me. “People are really considering how we think about nature in the current state of the environment. But it’s also a broader message of the struggle Darwin himself had between faith and science, religion and nature. Can you have a strong faith and still believe in the hand of nature? At the end of the day, though, it’s a coming-of-age adventure story about a young guy who set out not knowing much but came back and changed everything. We hope people will be inspired by that.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 16, 2016 as "Puppetry of the genus". Subscribe here.

Christopher Currie
is a Brisbane-based writer. His next novel is Clancy of the Undertow.