The set is excellent: a revolving wooden structure that can form a cliff, mountain or pool, or even the prow of the ship on one side, and the deck or Darwin's cabin on the other. The whole production has a sense of ongoing momentum, fitting for the tale it weaves, as actors move around on or next to the set, often guiding puppets through the frequently re-locating chapters in the narrative.
The first thing that sticks out are the puppet operators as they dash across the stage bringing the animals to life, but it doesn't take long for the actor (the actors work the puppets when their characters are not involved in the drama) to flatten into the background and be perceived as part of the puppet, particularly as they vocalise the puppet they operate. The puppets are works of art in their own right: fascinating, skeleton (or even fossil) -like creatures, moved directly and indirectly with rods and handles and internal mechanisms. This allows distinct movement patterns to be generated and them to be convincingly seen as particular animals.
While the puppets are an essential part of the tale, 'The Wider Earth' is a very human drama: "a work of fiction drawn loosely from the historical record." David Morton and Nicholas Paine became fascinated with the concept of the young Darwin on the adventure of a lifetime and how the voyage would have challenged and changed him. The story they have created shows a Darwin with youthful energy and a passion for natural history, but also intellectual self-doubt. His curiosity about everything he experiences and the ability to connect disparate concepts brings him to conclusions he hesitates to name. 'The Wider Earth' imagines how several interweaving personal journeys underpinned and undermined Darwin's scientific discovery (and perhaps all our paths) and portrays the angst behind Darwin's great challenge to world order.
Darwin's notebook was central to the development of his ideas and so is fittingly central to not only the drama but the staging: The projected backdrop spans the full width of the stage adding the beauty of the star-lit sky, mapping out the journey with Victorian-style maps. This brings Darwin's journal sketches to life and provides moving scenery for the voyaging ship.
The commissioned music also plays a significant role in creating the atmosphere, matching the movements of puppets or the emotions of the protagonists, but just occasionally becoming a little intrusive and too discovery channel. In fact the audio balance was the only disappointing part of the production, with recorded voices occasionally lacking clarity and spoken words sometimes losing out to soundscape.
The cast is uniformly strong. Tom Conroy gave a superlative performance in the demanding role of Darwin, well-supported by Antony Standish (Captain Fitz Roy), Thomas Larkin (John Wickham) and David Lynch (The Rev Matthews) on the voyage, and refreshed by the delightful Margi Ash Brown as Henslow and Herschel.
'The Wider Earth' draws the audience into its imagined worlds, internal and external, with skill and intimacy: a beautiful and original piece of theatre.
'The Wider Earth' plays at Queensland Theatre Company until 7 August.