Theatre

The Dead Puppet Society’s The Wider Earth is a captivating enactment of Charles Darwin’s discovery of evolution. By Yen-Rong Wong.

The Wider Earth

Tom Conroy as Charles Darwin with his beagle, Polly (played by Jaime Ureta), in The Wider Earth.
Tom Conroy as Charles Darwin with his beagle, Polly (played by Jaime Ureta), in The Wider Earth.
Credit: Dean Hanson

When the HMS Beagle set sail in 1831, no one could have predicted that this journey would overhaul our understanding of life on the planet – after all, its mission was simply to complete a survey of South American waters. The Dead Puppet Society’s The Wider Earth, written and directed by David Morton and co-directed by Matt Seery, condenses the key moments of this five-year voyage – including the discoveries that would inform the rest of Charles Darwin’s work – into two acts and 100 minutes.

This multi-award-winning production opens with Darwin (Tom Conroy) struggling to persuade his father, Robert Darwin (Kevin Spink), that his interests in geology and botany are worth pursuing over a much more boring, albeit stable, life as a priest. It’s not long before Reverend John Henslow (Barbara Lowing), a professor at Cambridge, recommends Darwin to the HMS Beagle as a “gentleman naturalist”, and after meeting Robert FitzRoy (Anthony Standish), the captain of the Beagle, both Darwin and the audience embark on an adventure around the world.

Much of the action takes place on or around the ship, which is represented on stage by two versatile wooden structures. Designed by Morton and Aaron Barton, they open to show the interior of Darwin’s cabin on HMS Beagle and the ship’s hull, where Darwin stores many of the fossils he finds on his adventures. They also function as rescue boats and cliffs and crags, and hand and footholds allow the actors to climb up and down with ease.

The physical set is amplified by Justin Harrison’s projections, which chart the locations Darwin visits in sprawling handwriting similar to that found on old maps. Together with Lior and Tony Buchen’s original score, they also help set the scenes – the lush jungles of the Amazon, the Galápagos Islands, Hobart, the Canary Islands, to name a few. Constellations, coupled with a pensive three-note musical motif that is repeated throughout the play, foreshadow sketches of Darwin’s now-famous diagram of the tree of life.

The relatively sparse set allows the puppets to take centre stage. Designed and crafted by Dead Puppet Society and controlled by handles and rods, they are operated by members of the cast with assistance from puppeteers Liesel Zink, Morgan Francis and Billy Fogarty. The actors transition seamlessly to and from speaking and puppeteering roles, and the puppets’ inclusions don’t feel forced.

Butterflies, iguanas, schools of fish, cormorants and other birds glide effortlessly in and out of scenes, and clever puppet fabrication is given a chance to shine – perhaps most memorably in the armadillo, which curls itself into a ball when approached, and the Galápagos tortoise, which moves stoically and serenely across the stage. It is clear that much attention has been paid to the intricacies of these animals’ movements – the platypus’s idiosyncrasies are present in how it wiggles its tail and flippers – and Polly, Darwin’s dog, nuzzles him like a real dog, with an added tactility in the sound of the wood on stage echoing the pitter-patter of a dog’s paws.

As the play progresses, we find that FitzRoy has a quick temper, steadfast religious convictions and is protective of his authority. Also on board are Matthews (Kevin Spink), a missionary, and Button (Jaime Ureta), named for the mother-of-pearl button he was supposedly traded for. Button is a Fuegian taken from Tierra del Fuego on a previous voyage and now returning home as a shining example of the British civilising project.

FitzRoy is proud of his work in “educating” Button to be a “real gentleman”, and it is uncomfortable to watch him so vehemently defend slavery in front of a man who is arguably a slave in everything but name. When Darwin asks Button how he feels about how he has been treated, Button replies, “sometimes we must do what is necessary to survive”, foreshadowing the phrase “survival of the fittest”, now synonymous with Darwinian evolutionary theory.

Shortly after landing in Tierra del Fuego, fires erupt on the island in an apparent rebellion by the “natives”. Sound engineering by Tony Brumpton and Brady Watkins, together with lighting under the direction of David Walters, Lee Curran and Christine Felmingham, provide extra dramatic tension to this scene, which closes the first act. The sound of fire crackles through the air, and pinpricks of light filter through cracks in the set’s wooden structure in a canny imitation of embers flickering alight on the ship’s wooden deck.

Matthews is eventually rescued, but he abandons Button in the process, claiming the Fuegian had joined his people in turning against him – and presumably, by association, the British. Though initially sceptical, FitzRoy seems to accept this claim relatively quickly. After departing the Beagle, the real Button was abandoned “because FitzRoy had removed him within days of arrival, deeming it too dangerous for him to remain”, before he was incorrectly accused more than 20 years later of inciting an attack on another missionary expedition that resulted in the death of European missionaries.

The cursory examination of Button’s life is reflected in the production’s treatment of the abolitionist movement. Darwin’s interactions with Emma Wedgwood (Frances Berry) are sweet but seem to have only been included to highlight his awkwardness around women and his support for abolition.

It is important to note that despite Darwin’s disgust about slavery, he still held problematic views. In The Descent of Man he wrote that there were differences in the moral and intellectual abilities of the “highest men of the highest races and the lowest savages”, and in an 1882 letter he told amateur scientist Caroline Kennard that “women though generally superior to men [in] moral qualities are inferior intellectually … and there seems to me to be a great difficulty from the laws of inheritance (if I understand these laws rightly) in their becoming the intellectual equals of man.”

The Wider Earth is a celebration of Darwin’s achievements and contributions to scientific understanding, but it is just as important to acknowledge the more sinister effects of his thought. As Angela Saini notes in Superior: The Return of Race Science, the “survival of the fittest” has been used repeatedly throughout history as justification for racist and colonialist beliefs. The play deftly negotiates the nuances and tensions present in religious and scientific views on creation and evolution but misses an opportunity to explore – or, perhaps, simply to explain – the influence of social norms and biases on interpretations of scientific discovery, even when it comes to great scientific minds.

Although its scope may be a little too ambitious, the cast and puppet-makers in The Wider Earth successfully integrate a wide range of performance forms and technologies into theatre and storytelling. The story of Darwin’s journey is particularly suited for such innovation, and the visually stunning set and lifelike puppets combine to create a captivating production. 

The Wider Earth plays at the Princess Theatre, Brisbane, until February 19 and then tours nationally.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 19, 2022 as "Theatrical evolution".

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Yen-Rong Wong is a writer of creative nonfiction currently based in Meanjin (Brisbane).

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