The Wider Earth (Queensland Theatre Company and Dead Puppet Society)
The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio
July 9 – August 7
“The Wider Earth” shares the adventure story of a gentleman botanist on a grand and ambitious adventure. It is a tale we might think we know as it imagines 22-year-old Charles Darwin’s trip on the H.M.S. Beagle’s maiden voyage around the world to survey and primarily chart the coastline of South America. During the trip Darwin recorded many findings and collected a variety of specimens in discovery of evidence leading to his theory of natural selection in a time of religious-reigned science, making him memoir it as being the most important event in his life and determinate of his entire career.
It is a remarkable tale of forests, oceans and volcanoes told in flashback recollection to his love Emma Wedgwood (Lauren Jackson) and in the hands of Dead Puppet Society, the result is faultless theatre, including a suite of over 20 astonishing animal puppets, great and small, from tiny beetles to a mighty whale.
Unlike last year’s “Argus”, the animals do not appear in every scene, however, they play integral roles in the narrative, lending themselves so easily to the story given the number of places around the world that the voyage visited.
From the curious creatures of the Galapagos to a personality-filled companion beagle, Polly, each one is authentic in behaviour and movement. All actors also serve as occasional puppeteers, such as when the stage is besieged by butterflies in the Amazon, a beautiful scene that belies the calamity to follow.
This is an intimate yet epic production, deceptively simple in its staging. A rotating wooden structure gives versatile shape to hills, houses and also the ship deck, cabin and rowboat.This is supported by a wide panoramic backdrop screen onto which is projected the visuals commissioned of Brisbane artist Anna Straker and filmmaker Justin Harris. Always in motion with various landscapes, it works with narration of an older, reflective Darwin voice-over to support the story and transport audiences to locations like the Andes and the Amazon, and also with lighting to transition mood to conflict, representing the most exquisite visual imagery. Magical music also supports the visual storytelling, enchanting in its original score by acclaimed, ARIA-award-winning Australian singer-songwriter Lior and producer Tony Buchen.
Under David Morton’s superb direction, every aspect of “The Wider Earth” is perfection. Cast members are all strong. As the young Darwin, Tom Conroy is an engaging protagonist, taking the audience from youthful curiosity to eloquent defence of his emerging philosophy in wonder of the wider earth. Anthony Standish is a powerful, hot-tempered Captain Robert Fitzroy, with whom Darwin clashes. And Thomas Larkin makes for an imposing first mate and friend to Darwin as the Scotsman John Wickham, later first magistrate of Moreton Bay, after which Brisbane’s Wickham Street is named.
“The Wider Earth” is Dead Puppet’s Society’s biggest production to-date, three years in the making and it is an ambition magnificently realised. Indeed, the production is a gentle balance between the comfort of a familiar classic and the challenge of a cutting-edge work, providing a refreshing take on a story audiences assume to know. Its subtle presentation of the theme of evolution is thought-provoking rather than dogmatic, serving to inspire further independent reading and research as to the scientific luminary’s visionary ideas and life’s work. This is storytelling at its most charming, demanding of audience attention and absorption to the point of becoming lost in the story animal world… everything that theatre should be… making it one of Brisbane’s most definitive theatrical pieces of recent years.