The Wider Earth

In this case that part of it found in SW7.  Specifically, the Flett Theatre (formerly the Jerwood Gallery) in the Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum, to see David Morton’s new play about the young Charles Darwin, The Wider Earth.

It is a charming piece, showing a Darwin in his early twenties, concentrating on beetles not lectures at Cambridge before a Summer hunting fossils in Wales and thence, with a little help from Uncle Josiah, the social reformer and abolitionist, Josiah Wedgewood, to the Beagle.  This is where the play really takes flight, quite literally with the puppet butterflies, birds and fishes.

The staging is ingenious, a single set on the central revolve stands in for Cambridge, Shrewsbury, Wales, various Pacific Islands, including the Galapagos, Australia and large chunks of south America.  It becomes the deck and cabins of the ship – not boat, as Captain Fitzroy corrects the young naturalist, who, at first sight, he rejects as unsuitable, only to relent later.

The mainly young cast double as puppeteers, bringing to life the exotic creatures Darwin is entranced by. Working with Handspring, the South African puppetry company which brought War Horse to such vivid life, the company has created some excellent animals. I loved the armadillo and iguana and the giant tortoises are wonderful.  Even an adult audience gasped at the near perfect rendition of animal behaviour, so I imagine children would be utterly beguiled – there are a lot of matinee performances.

This Darwin too is somewhat child-like, Emma Wedgewood, later Emma Darwin, tells him the voyage might help him grow up and the central performance has something of the young Micheal Crawford about it, lots of wide-eyed innocence and worthiness. There is little hint of the tough scientist beneath.  The character more subtly explored is Fitzroy, an interesting scientist in his own right, though that isn’t really mentioned here – evolution is the main event, not meteorology (though Herschel and photography feature briefly). Fitzroy suffered from near suicidal depression and that is touched on, as is his volatile character.

The drama catches the intellectual climate of the time, with Lyell’s geological theories already challenging Christian orthodoxy. Debate rages aboard the Beagle, stimulated by the presence of a clergyman, travelling to Tierra del Fuego to take God to the natives, as well as a native Fuegan, Jeremy Button, taken by Fitzroy from the south Atlantic to be ‘educated’ in Britain.  It shows the experiences – of volcanic eruption, of earthquakes and mountain making, of the differences in species from the various Galapagos islands – which inform Darwin’s thinking.

The play is educative in nature and it tackles its complex subject well, capturing Darwin’s youthful curiosity and exuberance. Emma, the solitary female, is given a mind, and a cause, of her own, in abolitionism and there is no suggestion that, within societal norms of the time, their alliance will be anything other than equal.  I must own up here – the character of Emma was played by an Anderson relative, Melissa Vaughn.

The Wider Earth runs until 24th February and tickets cost between £19.50 and £79.  It’s worth a visit, but don’t go next Tuesday, when royalty is visiting.  The photographs accompanying this post are my own and by Mark Douet.  For a first rate novel about the voyage of the Beagle I recommend This Thing of Darkness, by Harry Thompson (Tinder Press, 2006)