It’s the story that shaped not only a young man’s life, but the understanding of life as we now know it. Now, Charles Darwin’s inspiring journey will be put on stage for all to see in the first show of its kind at the Natural History Museum. We asked playwright David Morton for all of the exciting details, ahead of the production’s historic opening on Tuesday 2nd October…
The Wider Earth tells the story of Darwin’s voyage on HMS Beagle. How did that voyage affect the rest of his life and work?
On 25 October 1831, a 22-year-old Charles Darwin boarded a ship preparing for a voyage around the world. What he saw on the five-year voyage that followed led him to think deeply about the natural world, and to question received opinion about its origins. He also collected specimens – thousands of them – and these specimens, studied in the field and on his return to England, provided vital evidence in support of his ideas, especially on the theory of evolution.
Since this play is based on a real, historical voyage, how did you find the balance between giving a historically true account and telling a good story?
To strike the balance we’ve tried to include nothing in the story that doesn’t at least have some reference to actual events. There are definitely some leaps of imagination to heighten the drama but we’ve tried to keep true to the memories of the characters and the contributions they all made.
Was there any part of the writing or development process that you found especially challenging?
The most challenging part was trying to work out which parts of the history to use. The records of the voyage are so rich with information that it was hard not to include everything.
What do you think will surprise audiences most about the Darwin you’re presenting versus the Darwin they think they know?
In the show we try and capture Darwin’s energy, his drive, and his excitement. We wanted to show the Darwin behind the long grey beard, and paint a portrait of Charles as the young man.
In your opinion, what do puppets add to the story (or to theatre in general)?
The process of bringing a puppet to life on stage takes an incredible degree of commitment and discipline. Unlike an actor who spends a rehearsal period developing a character, a puppet has to first learn how to be alive before we can even start to wonder as to what its character might be. Ultimately, the process isn’t complete until the imagination of an audience turns the movement cues that we give into the illusion of life. I think that puppets deepen the possibilities of storytelling in theatre, and can provoke a real sense of wonder in an audience.
Of the 30 puppets featured in this production, do you have a favourite?
The Galapagos tortoise! And the flightless cormorant.
Since it’s a bit unconventional to stage a play in the Museum, have there been any logistical challenges?
Converting the Jerwood Gallery into a theatre for the first time has been a challenge, but the outcome is absolutely worth it!
What has it been like working with the Museum’s scientists?
Working with Professor Adrian Lister has been an absolute honour. To receive input into the story from someone who has lived and breathed everything Darwinian for so long has allowed the script to flourish. Adrian has an amazing sense of Charles as a person, and has been just as excited as us about making the story fresh, and bringing the voyage to life.
There are so many incredible and unique aspects to this production: its staging in the Natural History Museum, its 30 hand-made puppets, its blending of animations and live performance. What are you most excited to share with audiences?
The experience of the whole thing. I think what’s so special about this work is the integration of the elements. There’s so much to look at, and the world of the play is so rich. Also the amazing cast, their dedication to the characters and the story has been just awe inspiring and I’m so grateful to the whole team.
If you’re as excited as we are for this groundbreaking new production you can book tickets now! Watch the trailer below:
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