Features Australia

Darwin’s puppets

17 February 2018

9:00 AM

17 February 2018

9:00 AM

When I was young, like many teenagers, I considered science dull. At a Passover dinner one year, I declared this to a relative, who happened to be a celebrated neurobiologist. Science, I sighed dramatically, was just dry.

Rather than chastise me, he looked at me, an amused smile playing on his lips. But it’s not, he said. To dare to see the world in new ways – it takes giant leaps of imagination. It is wild, and exciting, and valiant. And full of risk.

I was reminded of that exchange – the first time talk of science provoked a flutter of tiny butterflies in my stomach – watching The Wider Earth, the brilliant, groundbreaking production created by Dead Puppet Society and Queensland Theatre that played at Sydney Festival in January. Dramatising Charles Darwin’s legendary five-year-voyage on the HMS Beagle, The Wider Earth shows the naturalist as a young whippersnapper: eager, naïve, a dreamer, bursting with creative flair, yet to make his mark on the world.

Far from being a prodigy, Darwin, then just 22, was floundering when he embarked on his adventure across the globe. He was a disappointment to his father, having yet to finish his course at Cambridge, and prone to flights of fancy. When he departed in 1831, on the recommendation of a visionary professor, he left behind his childhood sweetheart and the offer of secure employment.

This was a journey of great peril, something The Wider Earth does not shy away from. Captain Cook, after all, had only mapped the waters around Australasia some 60 years prior. There was no guarantee that Darwin would return alive.

But if The Wider Earth swells and sways with the great dangers of the sea, it also celebrates the wonders of the new world, as the HMS Beagle visits the Americas, Australia and Africa. Helping to bring to life the strange inhabitants of these far-flung continents are an army of painstakingly crafted puppets, from Darwin’s sloppy, affectionate dog Polly to sleek sharks, playful penguins, and a hulking giant tortoise.

Dead Puppet Society’s creative director David Morton, who wrote and directed The Wider Earth, conceived the idea at a residency at Handspring Puppet Company in Cape Town. Famous for their blockbuster War Horse, the influence is palpable: as in War Horse the puppets are skeletal, with their intricate insides visible. The performers who operate them are also in full view. Watching the engineering at work filled me with wonder. Darwin too, the production seems to say, noted the mechanics of these wild and wonderful beasts (many unknown to Europe) with awe.

That point is drummed home when Darwin comes across an armadillo. The tiny mammal scurries about the stage before, to his great joy, it bundles itself up into a perfect ball (a genius feat of puppeteering). When Darwin discovers the fossil of a glyptodont, a giant, extinct armadillo-like creature, he begins to question why some species die out, only to be replaced by other, similar ones. As he turns this over in his mind, connecting the dots, the fossil comes to life, lumbering up on its hind legs and sloping across the stage. It’s a magical moment.

Likewise, an ingenious set brings the Beagle to life. Shaped like a wooden ark or rocky outcrop, it rotates so that every nook and cranny can be used. (When Darwin is at home in England, it is the simple addition of a lit up dollhouse, sitting atop the construction, which tells us he is in a country manor). Behind the ark, on a screen, lyrical illustrations spell out where the action is taking place, from Hobart to the Galapagos. Meanwhile, a cinematic core by Lior​ and Tony Buchen adds drama.

It is to Morton’s great credit that these elements only add to, rather than distract from, the play’s core humanity. With a sharp, funny, and honest script Morton captures the back and forth of banter on the boat and the affection that Darwin felt for his cousin Emma Wedgewood (wittily played by Emily Burton) whom he would later marry.

Tom Conroy is without fault as the young naturalist who brims with youthful enthusiasm while also suffering bouts of existential doubt over the magnitude of his ideas. His coltish, high-spirited performance is juxtaposed with a voice-over of Darwin’s writings, done in the gravelly tones of a learned authority. It’s a beautiful contrast between the enthusiastic boy, with everything in front of him, and the man we know he will one day become.

Meanwhile, each of the other characters could warrant a play of their own. There’s Miss Wedgewood, an avid Abolitionist. There’s the cynical, conservative captain of the Beagle, Robert Fitzroy (Anthony Standish), and the warm, down-to-earth Scottish first officer, John Wickham (Thomas Larkin). Then there’s Jemmy Button, a Patagonian Indian, performed with understated disquiet by Jaime Ureta.

Captain Fitzroy abducted Button as a boy (so-called because he was paid for with a mother-of-pearl button) from Tierra del Fuego in 1830. Educated in England for a year, and converted to Christianity, he was to be returned to his homeland in order to spread the word of Christ. The mission, of course, is doomed; in the play, as Button touches ashore, a rash of fires spread across the coast, consuming him back to the pagan gods.

The fire seems to suggest something else, too: an uncaring, cruel earth. The power of that earth – so far away from Christian paternalism – strikes Darwin time and again on the voyage. He is struck by the splendour of phosphorescence, the fury of volcanoes, and the primeval rainforests of Brazil, a cathedral ‘where death and decay prevail’, untouched by man.

Amongst all this rampant, lush beauty, of course, is a replacement of faith from religion to scientific observation. On the Origin of the Species, published 15 years after Darwin’s return to England, shattered the accepted theology of creationism and with that came unease. ‘The wilderness has a mysterious tongue,’ Darwin wrote in his memoirs, The Voyage of the Beagle, ‘which teaches awful doubt.’

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