The Natural History Museum
Tickets from 23.50
There is a statue of Darwin that graces the entrance hall of the Natural History Museum, smiling benignly at the immense whale skeleton suspended above the milling crowds. As anticipated the statue is more beard than man, with an assumed twinkle in its eyes that might be more due to latent Dumbledore associations than anything we know about the famed naturalist. For many this is practically the full Darwin package with Theory of Evolution-Beard-something involving a Beagle making up the entirety of our cultural knowledge of the man and his life.
The Wider Earth, currently playing within the environs of the Natural Museum itself, delights in upending this staid and sketchy vision by giving us a 22 year old Darwin, resolutely beardless and ready to embark on the voyage of a lifetime aboard the HMS Beagle. Far from all-knowing, the young Darwin is so wet behind the years that you can find yourself unexpectedly agreeing with his austere father that he needs to get a grip on himself and find a proper job, rather than wasting his time collecting beetles. The show concerns itself with Darwin’s 5 year journey around the world as the Beagle’s naturalist and the script, whilst bright and frequently informative, sometimes feels like it’s more concerned with filling in gaps in the audience’s knowledge than generating genuine drama. However any concerns here are swept aside with some truly striking multimedia staging. A rotating wooden centrepiece reorients itself smoothly between island rocks and cabin interior whilst an overhead screen flickers with wonderfully painterly representations of the ships journey and each new exotic locale. In addition the various fantastic beasts that Darwin catalogued are represented with some really quite nifty, Warhorse style, puppets. From emerald butterflies to huge prehistoric land mammals, they seem certain to delight children [and more than a few adults] and are one of the main things that really help confirm The Wider Earth as true blue family day out fare.
There is obviously no better home for this play than the museum itself, with all of the surrounding exhibits really hammering home the weight of the theory that had its genesis on Darwin’s voyage. In a bizarre bit of synchronicity the Jerwood gallery, which has been transformed into what feels like a genuine theatre rather than the ad-hoc selection of chairs it could have ended up as, is the exact same length of the historical HMS Beagle. Whilst there is a bit of a tendency for ‘shouty’ acting, Bradley Foster’s Darwin nails the fey naivety of the young naturalist with some painfully believable angst due to a crisis of faith caused by the implications of his observations. Rather than playing down the conflict between evolution and religion, The Wider Earth leans right into the potential controversy, with Darwin at his emotional lowest temporality coming across as borderline Nietzchean. Whilst all this levels out by the end it’s a bit of a surprise, but the play takes on a surprisingly large selection of social issues including slavery and empire in ambitious, if glancing, strikes. The mouthpiece for the British version of the Ancient Regime is Robert Fitzroy (Jack Parry-Jones) potentially the most fascinating character in the play, whose contrasting personality zig-zags between nobility and chilling faith in concepts like phrenology. Parry-Jones electrifies whenever he’s on stage and is never reduced to a simple hero or villain, instead existing as something rather more complicated.
The Wider Earth has been made with real care and attention, with the assured and deeply imaginative staging certain to please. If it helps our image of Darwin evolve beyond the avuncular beard into the questing naturalist he was then so much the better
The Wider Earth is showing until February 24 2019