Natural History Museum, London – until the 30 December 2018
The Jerwood Gallery is for the first time a theatre: in the small excitement of a new space dark shapes loom ahead of us, angular, wooden. Spotlights throw moving blobs of light on the floor, shining amoebae. A voice speaks words from Genesis.
Thus artfully we are put into a settled, clerical 18th-century mood: a Biblical earth only 4,000 years old, unchanging, each creature designed and signed off in its permanent form by the hand of God. Then, against an English sky, young Charles Darwin returns to his future wife Emma after five years at sea, hoping she has not changed. He has changed, though, in deeper ways. The voyage of the Beagle and the natural marvels the young naturalist saw and reflected on would lead all the way years later to the magisterial Origin of Species: the evolutionary theory that shook conventional Christian bigotry and, God help us, in some quarters still does.
David Morton’s play has had success in Australia and now is refined – with careful input from the Natural History Museum’s paleobiologist Professor Adrian Lister, author of Darwin’s Fossils. It shows us a young man, urged towards the clergy by his father but keener to wonder about things like why marine fossils turn up on mountainsides. He is encouraged by the Rev. Henslow at Cambridge to apply for the naturalist’s post on a naval expedition and look at everything afresh: “It’s the small things that change the world… if you send a trained naturalist into the field, everything he finds will reassure him of what he already knows.”
Bradley Foster is perfect as Darwin, youthful and keen, at first striking the wrong note with the dourly RN Captain Fitzroy (Jack Parry-Jones). They argue about slavery, Darwin being passionately abolitionist and Fitzroy both approving its economic advantage and thinking “civilisation” good for the slaves. He had actually got on board a captive Fuegan he named Jemmy Button: he had been tended with care and “Christianised”, to be delivered back to Tierra del Fuego as a missionary.
The marvellous, revolving, tricksy angular wooden set (with projections by Justin Harrison of 18c drawings or roaring seas and volcanoes) becomes the Beagle’s cramped quarters, and English hillside, or the ridges and tracks where from Patagonia to the Galapagos the young man clambers and slithers, finding new creatures. These are lovely wooden puppets; scuttling iguanas, a majestic giant tortoise, strange birds, shoals of fish, a whale, fireflies, a pricelessly dignified armadillo.
There is jeopardy in Patagonia, a volcano, Fitzroy feeling he has failed in his own mission and Darwin intent, always wondering, but understanding Jemmy’s tribal idea of “the heat of the gods” running through every living thing. The Biblical Christian impediment to the growing knowledge of evolution and natural selection, the realization that it is about millennia not years – is strongly evoked. The cruelty of nature shakes Darwin too – “such suffering and such majesty” but the Duck-billed platypus recalls him to admiring belief in a Creator, so brilliantly adapted is it. Something can be a natural wonder but still a miracle…
A show like this, in a museum and with a simplicity of script perfectly adapted to school groups, might well be nodded by as an educational kids’ show for the Christmas season. Actually, it is dramatically more than that. Unassumingly spectacular, unwhimsically playful, it is an affecting, respectful, important story of a green young man who kept his eyes open and endured seasickness and doubt and discomfort and danger. And made great discoveries.
http://www.thewiderearth.com/ to 30 Dec
rating four highly evolved mice