The Wider Earth is a chimera. It is theatre in a museum; a scientific narrative with literary license; awe-inspiring for children and yet oddly touching for adults; it communicates a sense of wonder alongside a caveat of disaster. The diversity of life and the arrangement of life upon our planet is a study – and recent results have shown that our impact upon the world could do with some improvement.
Big, ambitious, bright and hopeful.
Enter Dead Puppet Society: the product of Creative Director (and writer) David Morton, and Executive Producer Nicholas Paine. The Wider Earth is an expansive treatment of Darwin’s young life before, during, and after his formative years on the Beagle, captained by Robert FitzRoy. Morton’s script is well-researched, and the set design is a multi-layered delight consisting of a revolving stage, technically brilliant lighting and projection design – all within a venue that was designed to be a cathedral for nature itself: the Natural History Museum.
The story begins with a young Darwin (Bradley Foster) struggling to find purpose at university and at home. A troubled and precocious student, he is more committed to his beetle collection than his theology studies. Assisted by his professor (Andrew Bridgmont), Darwin finds himself outfoxing his overbearing father and becoming the resident naturalist of the Beagle, captained by the devout and often dogmatic Robert FitzRoy (Jack Parry-Jones).
The Wider Earth is a curious package. It melds simple and childish wonder with a concentrated scientific exegesis. In this story, Darwin goes through trials and tribulations; he is minded by his peers who – much like disciples – are content to follow him only once he displays his brilliance under pressure. Professors are positioned as prophetic, and the craftsmanship of the Dead Puppet Society encapsulates the world’s fauna with mechanical precision. The very setting of the Natural History Museum (and the Jerwood Gallery in particular) frames the narrative with an architectural natural iconography. These choices are of course deliberate, and are components of a much larger message: that the natural world, and the pursuit of understanding it, is something to revere.
Dead Puppet Society deliver on this mission brief. Visually, the story of Darwin’s voyage has the hallmarks of a ship-launching ceremony in its own right. The set and lighting design is big, ambitious, bright and hopeful while soundscapes provide a choral and uplifting accompaniment. Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle took him to landscapes around the world, and A Wider Earth does not lose itself amongst this expansive scope.
Morton’s script delights in adventure and may be the first natural sciences version of a swashbuckling romance. Occasionally the script can feel expositional – sometimes characters relay how much time has passed since they last saw each other, when in fact the physical nuance of the performers alludes this information wordlessly. But this is symptomatic of the challenge of presenting the enormity of the voyage itself within a tight theatrical timeframe – using one line to move the plot along by years is almost certainly worth it.
The puppets are likely to be the stars of the show. To see the intricacies of their parts collectively communicate larger and expressive beasts is a delight similar to seeing the parts that make a clock tick, which is testament to Dead Puppets Society’s craftsmanship. Presenting animals as constituent of many smaller and more fragile parts is a powerful means of communicating the compositional complexity of ecosystems around the world – as well as their fragility.
The ensemble cast support each other selflessly and each takes on moments of theatrical heavy lifting where required. Bridgmont commands the stage as an outspoken educator of others, bringing a grizzled but charming sensibility to his scenes. Where Darwin is the emergent scholar, Bridgmont is the end result: veteran, inspiring, and kind. Jack Parry-Jones also deserves mention for his depiction of Robert FitzRoy, who is one of history’s more tragic figures. A devout and religious man, he steered Darwin through life experiences and landscapes that would eventually pose a colossal contradiction to his own system of beliefs. Parry-Jones captures the complexities of this dynamic whilst also providing much of the comic relief with acerbic, well-timed responses to the biodiverse chaos on stage.
A Wider Earth is proof that the diversity of life is a story. We are audience to the wonders of the natural world, as well as participants in the survival or collapse of it. Science can struggle to translate to stage as it can often be perceived as didactic or dense; using Darwin’s own experiences of discovery to bridge audiences to a larger message is intelligent and timely. This is a rich ensemble piece, which revels in visual power to deliver an effective message.