Gazing over the grand central gallery in London’s Natural History Museum – over the thousands of punters that visit daily and the iconic skeleton of a vast blue whale – is a marble statue of Charles Darwin. Bald, sporting a long bushy beard, he appears as much sage as scientist. His knees are crossed, his hands are clasped. He looks old, pensive and wise. So pervasive is this image of Darwin that it’s easy to forget he was once a young man. And that it was in his youth that many of his most radical ideas were formed.
Thankfully, a new play is here to remind us. The Wider Earth, depicting Darwin’s five-year voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle, which he embarked on at the age of just 22, opened in October. It marks the first time that a theatre of its size – there are 357 seats – has ever been erected in the museum’s 137-year-history.
‘We still pinch ourselves when walking through the Hintze Hall, passing the marble statue of Darwin, that we have the privilege of telling his story in the perfect location,’ says director and playwright David Morton, an Australian who has brought the production, fresh from a sell-out run at the Sydney Opera House, to London.
When I visit the Natural History Museum in late August, preparations for the show – which features no less than 30 hand-made puppets – are full steam ahead. Behind a glass wall, designed so that curious visitors can peer in, prop makers are hard at work creating the puppets. There’s a giant tortoise, a bunch of finches, and an armadillo.
‘The idea is to excite the public, it is to engage the public, it is to make them care – and to incite a sense of wonder in the natural,’ Professor Adrian Lister, one of the museum’s palaeobiologists and author of Darwin’s Fossils, tells me.
‘These days there’s so much more to what we do than putting specimens in glass cases,’ he adds. ‘This is a hybrid between a West End stage production and, on the other hand, we’re in the middle of the cathedral of natural history. Don’t forget this is not a theatre. We are creating a theatre.’
Developed by Brisbane-based Dead Puppet Society, The Wider Earth charmed audiences when it first opened in 2016. There was the rotating stage, designed to look like a jutting ship; the animations of maps and galaxies; and the puppets. Critics loved it: the SMH called it an ‘enchanted voyage’; the Australian proclaimed it ‘astonishingly original.’
Still, puppets and a stellar set can only go so far. For many, it was the depiction of Charles Darwin himself that hit a nerve. This was a young man who, as yet, had little idea of who he was or how he would fit into the world. Taking a leap of faith to travel on the Beagle, he left behind the woman he loved (he would later marry her) and abandoned familial expectations (his father was disappointed that his son would not enter the clergy).
Yet Darwin’s time on the Beagle helped change the course of scientific history: it was there that he wrote his diaries. And it was there that the seeds of the theory of evolution first began to brew.
In the 1830s a voyage around the world was also filled with danger and the prospect of death – something that The Wider Earth addresses, ranging from a volcanic eruption to ferocious storms. This was a journey for Darwin that was mentally and physically earth-shattering. In The Voyage of the Beagle he describes an earthquake as a kind of awakening: ‘The earth, considered from our earliest childhood as the type of solidity, has oscillated like a thin crust beneath our feet and in seeing the laboured works of man in a moment overthrown, we feel the insignificance of his boasted power.’
‘The whole adventure of it!’ Lister exclaims, shaking his head with respect, as he recounts this and other exploits and escapades Darwin endured. ‘People have the idea of a scientist as a rather colourless person sitting in a white coat pushing numbers into the computer. When you see science being done this way – on a ship full of sailors going around the world…’
For Dead Puppet Society co-founder Nicholas Payne, performing just metres from where many of Darwin’s original specimens are stored ‘just helps the whole play sing.’ It has also informed significant changes. Originally, Morton injected a fair dose of poetic licence into the script. That included the suicide of a priest on board, a ploy to show the devastating moral implication Darwin’s theories raised for a Christian society.
Towards the end of the original play, in a bid to hike up the drama, Darwin abandons his diaries only to find they have been saved when he returns to England.
Here, in the hallowed halls of science and research, such liberties with the truth were quickly curbed. ‘There is so much amazing stuff going on that you don’t need to make anything up,’ says Lister.
Beulah Garner, a senior curator at the Natural History Museum in the insect division, believes The Wider Earth will give the museum a much-needed boost to ‘make science sexier’.
‘Science still does have this barrier – people are a little frightened of it and of what they don’t understand,’ she says, as she shows me the shiny beetles Darwin himself collected, which sit, like a pick ‘n’ mix of candy, still pinned to boards.
Garner admits that the Natural History Museum ‘has probably not been as forward-thinking as other institutions like the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in bringing in contemporary audiences and having a fresh face. Finding something that matches their mission to be a working laboratory is hard.’ Or as The Wider Earth’s UK producer Trish Wadley, puts it: ‘This is a gamble.’
In The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin describes, with amazement, the untamed primeval forests he encounters on his journey. ‘Whether those of Brazil, where the powers of Life are predominant, or those of Tierra del Fuego, where Death and decay prevail,’ he writes. ‘Both are temples filled with the varied productions of the God of Nature: – no one can stand in these solitudes unmoved, and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body.’
Channelling this, The Wider Earth shimmers with wonder, with the excitement of discovery, with oversized reptiles, and ancient fossils, and wild seas, and towering trees. And a man, really little more than a boy, standing in awe at the centre of it all. It’s a world away from the staid, stately walls of this British institution. But, as Payne says of his play, ‘it’s like bringing it home.’
The Wider Earth is at the Natural History Museum, London, until December 30