“Small details, carefully recorded” is the instruction a beloved tutor gives to the young Charles Darwin early in this play, and just as Darwin eventually produces something transcendent from this method, so too does The Wider Earth.
The play tells the story of Darwin’s five year voyage on the HMS Beagle, the voyage on which he made the observations, and began drawing the inferences, that would become his magnum opus, now commonly known as The Origin of Species.
The set design is masterful, and the fluid, illuminated backdrop is a work of art in itself. There are strong performances all round, so much so that when it becomes clear that a particular actor will not be continuing to appear in a speaking part once the HMS Beagle sets sail this reviewer felt her absence keenly.
The plot, beginning with Darwin at Cambridge, requires us to follow young man through his journey of realisation and revelation. The fact that this journey is largely internal, and that the play is based on Darwin’s famous Journals, makes it odd that the play omits any kind of voice over or narration.
To compound this absence, Darwin’s inner journey is a source of conflict only towards the end of the play when he begins to fear the immensity of his new ideas. Until that time, conflict is provided by a sequence of fairly stock-scenes.
To pick an early example, Darwin the dreamer arguing with the father who wants him to settle down to a proper career could have come from any of thousands of stories.
The same is true of many of the conflict scenes, though Jack Parry-Jones in the role of Captain FitzRoy is commendable for the force of personality he brings to bear when it’s his turn to provide the necessary friction.
Sadly the puppets too are not all they perhaps might have been. Beautifully wrought and stunningly articulate many of them are nevertheless too small to command the stage in a theatre of this size, while the larger ones require such manual handling that they are frequently eclipsed (literally) by their handlers.
Fortunately this does not inhibit the plot, and the puppet scenes are largely just entertaining diversions, with some charming comic moments. It is sad to think they might have been more, but satisfying to appreciate them for what they are.
The play touches on a great many serious topics, from the dangers of life at sea to the evils of slavery, and it really begins to come together when it shows just how profoundly a religious view of the world influences people’s attitudes to suffering – their own and that of others.
And it is with this profundity that the stage is set for a powerful finale, as Darwin, ably portrayed by Bradley Foster, comes to terms with the immensity – and, perhaps, enormity – of his new ideas, and struggles to reconcile them with the religious underpinnings of his character and his world.
As a play put on in the Natural History Museum it had the salutary effect of making me want to at once read the Voyage of the Beagle, the published version of the journal we see Darwin writing through throughout the play. Perhaps oddly, the museum shop did not carry that book on its own, offering only a combined edition with The Origin of Species, which a person attending this play might be supposed to be more likely to already own.
Like Darwin’s voyage, this play reaches its climax in a manner both intellectually and aesthetically moving. Like the voyage though, the audience might have wished for a smoother ride to get there.