First announced back in July, David Morton’s play about Charles Darwin will be settling in at the Natural History Museum at the beginning of next month in a brand new theatre space on site. With casting now confirmed, and rehearsals in full swing, the Dead Puppet Society invited us in for a behind-the-scenes peek. The lucky few of us in the room were treated to a snippet of the play, followed by a short Q&A session with David Morton, Nicholas Paine and the cast, plus the chance to wander around the theatre to take a look at the stage and a selection of the puppets.
This production at the Natural History Museum is the European première of the play, but it was actually first performed (in its entirety) in the company’s native Australia.
“We were on our way to a residency at St Ann’s Warehouse in New York, and we were sort of looking for a concept we could use to create a large-scale piece of visual theatre that called for a large number of animal puppets,” says Morton. “We were talking late one night with Basil Jones, the executive director of Handspring, and he mentioned that not many people knew that Charles Darwin was a 22-year-old man when he set sail on the five-year voyage on the Beagle – and we were two of those people who didn’t know he was that young when he set sail! It sounded like a story that had to be told.”
The show’s initial development took place at St Ann’s Warehouse, before holding readings at the Lincoln Center (also in New York). The Wider Earth made its full debut at the Queensland Theatre in Brisbane, and earlier this year it had a run in Sydney.
As this theatre (affectionately named the Beagle Theatre by the cast and crew) is being put together specifically for the show, the Jerwood Gallery will end up being unrecognisable to previous visitors.
Morton explains: “At the moment we’re working on the revolve, and there’s also another structure that comes up to lift this section up to the same height as the revolve which has built-in lighting and smoke effects that we use to change the environment. There’s also, behind the set, an enormous panoramic projection screen, where we’ll see illustrations that are done in the style of Conrad Martens, who was the artist on The Beagle – he captured a lot of landscapes that they visited, so we use it to show maps, to set location, to give a backdrop to the action as it goes, but also it comes to represent Darwin’s internal thought space.
“There are a number of sequences in the show where we explore this on that projection screen. Our sound designer, Tony Brumpton, isn’t here, but he’s creating this immersive environmental surround design that makes you feel like you’re a part of the environments that were visited.”
As you can see from the 3D render of the auditorium, the stage will be end-on with two sets of seating: a few rows on the same level, situated in front of a bank of raked seating. There will also be a full lighting and sound rig installed. Given that the team never really considered presenting the show anywhere that wasn’t a theatre of some kind, it’s incredible how things have managed to fall into place.
In all, there are about 30 different puppets in the show – and they’re made up of around 10,000 individual pieces!….