The Wider Earth, Natural History Museum – Review

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All photos © Mark Douet

For millennia, mankind believed in ‘absolutes’ – ‘common sense’ observations that were ‘incontrovertible’ and reassured Man of his place in the order of things. Received wisdom said the Earth was flat and sat in the centre of the universe, while Man was the apex of Creation. Later, the scientific discoveries made during the Renaissance strengthened the case for a heliocentric solar system, though there was initial resistance. However, the biggest upheaval in scientific and philosphical thought was yet to come… Written and directed by David Morton, The Wider Earth looks at the early years of Charles Darwin and how a fateful voyage to the Southern Hemisphere became the catalyst for On the Origin of Species.

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Beginning with the return home of Charles Darwin (Bradley Foster) to Shrewsbury, he tells Emma, (Melissa Vaughan) his cousin and future wife, what transpired in the past five years. Showing a predilection for natural history, yet demonstrating ‘average’ grades at university, Charles Darwin faces the prospect of bowing to his father’s wishes to train to be a member of the clergy. But before he’s whisked off to seminary school, a lifeline presents itself to Darwin, courtesy of his old tutor at Cambridge.

With a naturalist’s enthusiasm, but without seasoned assumptions, the road to Darwin’s evolution of thought isn’t smooth, but a fitful, painful process as even beginning to articulate his nascent thoughts out loud incurs the ire of some of the crew on HMS Beagle…

The Wider Earth is a visual treat and has much to commend. The wide, curved screen where projections are displayed show everything from the birth of the universe to bioluminescent sea life. Where it’s used most frequently and effectively used is conveying the entries to Darwin’s journal, the rotoscoped images suggesting impressionistic water colour images made on the spot. It goes without saying that the puppets used to illustrate the diversity of life Darwin encounters on his trip are beautiful to look out, though their use is limited to key scenes.

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With regards to the narrative itself, The Wider Earth doesn’t shy away from other events in the 19th century. If anything, they’re interwoven into the fabric of the show, serving to show how slavery in the British Empire was ‘morally condoned’ because it provided an opportunity for the proselytizing of the ‘savages’ to Christianity.

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As shown in the play, ‘patriotism’, ‘duty’ and ‘godliness’ were assumed to be indivisible – a Gordian knot which if severed, would ‘undermine society’. The trip on HMS Beagle opens Darwin’s eyes in more ways than one and he realises that as privileged as he is, ‘freethinking’ is frowned upon. If that’s the case for him, what of the Empire’s slaves who have ‘no rights’ at all? Characters such as Jemmy Button (Marcello Cruz) offer their perspective on being taken from places like Tierra del Fuego to ‘civilisation’ and how it changes you as a person…

Running for 2+ hours, The Wider Earth is suitable for the whole family. Because it is a serious play, mostly driven by a dialogue, very young children perhaps would find it hard to sit still for such a length of time. But for older children and adults there is much to savour, a marriage of the spectacle with the underlying message of not backing away from self-evident truths.

© Michael Davis 2018

Four-and-a-half stars

The Wider Earth runs at the Jerwood Gallery of the Natural History Museum until 30th December.

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