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Theatre Review: The Wider Earth @ the Natural History Museum

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The play opens to ethereal music and a low rumbling, with a starscape of slowly scintillating lasers through dry ice – lasers suspended in the air, glints of white light occasionally catching your eye.

There’s an indescribable anticipation for being in one of the Museum’s hallowed halls, and all of the preshow impresses on the audience the immanence of an Event. An indescribable dark shape skulks in the centre of the room, a mysterious part of our discovery.

Images courtesy of Chloe Nelkin Consulting

This shape turns out to be the set, a hulking structure of wood which at certain angles is part ship, part building. One side is predominantly hills/cliffs/icebergs/coastlines, and the other, hollow, predominantly classroom/ship-deck/living room, giving a nice variety of sets with a minimum of clunky changeovers. The revolution and rotation is used quite cleverly in scenes and montages to create a sense of lateral movement, for example a prehistoric fish swimming as the puppeteer stands still and the background moves. Revolves seem to be very much “in” right now for high-concept theatre (Les Mis, War Horse, Hamilton) but it’s used very well here, particularly when used to create that sense of travel, like those rolling backgrounds in old fashioned film, and it felt quite a fresh innovation in this smaller-scale production.

The production is, as it happens, sentimental and affected, and the acting throughout is declamatory and obvious – but that criticism hits at the intention behind this production. This isn’t a play that adults would go to theatre to enjoy as a piece of drama. It’s interesting for an adult to watch and learn about Darwin’s biography, but the key audience is children, and it’s certainly wonderful theatre for children (as an adult, it’s possible to appreciate that fact intellectually while still enjoying the play). Tellingly, children go free to this production.

So the acting may be a bit daft, but it’s certainly cute and endearing, enough to keep a younger audience interested enough in the characters before we get to Darwin’s discoveries. In fairness, it’s engrossing once you get past the unusual style, and is fantastic at creating that sense of wonder which defines the experience of ‘The Wider Earth’.

As a side-note, despite being cute and affecting, don’t think this play shies away from the disturbed history of British empire and slavery.  The conflicts of ideology, both social and existential (one of the passengers is a creationist clergyman who observes Darwin’s discoveries with concern) feel dangerous on the small ship far from home, even if a bit overdramatic. In various ways this production captures the sense of being far from home.

Something related to acting, for which the production positively shines, is its puppetry. The models are beautiful War-Horse style affairs with intricate moving parts which immediately draw the eye. The puppeteering is admirable and absolutely reverential; the puppeteers are so fully invested in the operation of their puppet. In that black-magic way in which skilled puppeteers do, the Wider Earth’s puppeteers keep their eyes fixed on the puppet’s head at all times and wear on their face the curiosity/startlement/anger that their creature is supposed to be feeling, magically imbuing the animal puppet with emotion, spirit and life. It is entirely fitting that a play about Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle should find such a fascinating and engrossing way to portray animal wonder.

The Music is wonderful, evocative of Martin O’Donnell’s score for ‘Halo’ or Christopher Tin’s score for the ‘Civilization’ series. The theme in those videogames is that they present something older and grander than the endeavour of single humans or humanity itself (fitting). Constantly while watching, one has the imagery of ‘Planet Earth II’ or at times ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’ in mind – as a compliment to Attenborough, and I suppose also to Darwin, The Wider Earth speaks a visual language in which all watchers of wildlife documentaries will be fluent.

It’s good at the creation of two pasts, the historic past and the epic, prehistoric past, which can overlap and flow past each other in interesting ways. It also has the foreboding, prescient feeling to which historical biopics always fall victim (try watching Netflix’s The Crown for this phenomenon’s peak manifestation). Darwin’s journey to becoming the Beagle’s on-board naturalist, despite intervening twist and turns, feels positively fated, and Darwin’s journal glows to illumine his face whenever he goes to write in it.

The Wider Earth is running at the Natural History Museum until 30th December, and tickets can be purchased here.

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