The inclusion of puppets in a play that charts Charles Darwin’s history-making journey aboard The Beagle mightn’t seem like an obvious coupling. Yet Dead Puppet Society’s warmly received production of The Wider Earth for Queensland Theatre in 2016 seemed to win over even the greatest of sceptics.

David Morton. Photo: supplied. 

Billed as a coming of age story, it presents a thoroughly dynamic Darwin, burning with curiosity – greying phlegmatic of the history books he is not. The idea first came to Dead Puppet Society’s creative director, David Morton, and its executive producer, Nicholas Paine, during a residency at the Handspring Puppet Company in Cape Town, South Africa, best known as the team behind the smash-hit production of War Horse.

“It was learning the story of Darwin’s early life that made me want to create this show about him,” Morton says (he wrote the play, as well as directing the QT production and working on its design). “Having studied Darwin and his theories in school I was surprised at how ignorant I was about who he was before he became the wizened expert with the long grey beard. When I started to dig I was blown away by the records of his struggles at school, dropping out of university and ongoing conflict with his father. There was a story here that I thought had to be told, about how this lost young man became one of the world’s greatest thinkers.”

 The Wider Earth. Photograph: supplied. 

Like the Handspring Puppet Company, the Brisbane-based Dead Puppet Society is a production house and design company that creates puppet-based, visual theatre. Invigorated by their time in Cape Town, Paine and Morton continued to develop their ideas in New York and Queensland, before being commissioned by Queensland Theatre for a full-length production of the show. Over 30 intricate, stunning puppets are used to depict the unfamiliar wildlife that Darwin would have encountered and studied, operated by a bevy of performers onstage.

“The puppets work beautifully to expand the possibilities of what we can show in the theatre and make the world of the story feel more vast,” Morton enthuses. “By bringing to life some of the key creatures that Darwin encountered on the voyage, and looking forward to how these discoveries influenced his thinking… we’ve been able to pay homage to how deeply insightful and organic the development of his theory of evolution was.”

The Wider Earth. Photograph: supplied. 

But as visually impressive as the production is, the puppets never overwhelm the story of Darwin’s expedition. “For me the hook was always the human story. The science and the theory has fed into it over time, but at its heart the play is about the journey of a young man who was so desperate to find his place in the world that he risked his career, his relationships, and ultimately his life,” Morton says.

Yet the visually spectacular is married to the story in a way that has won audiences over, something at the heart of Dead Puppet Society. “We’ve always made highly technical performances,” Morton explains. “We’re trying to create work that fully embraces the resources that are available in the creation of new theatre, and integrating these in order to realise versatile theatrical worlds. When I was younger I was always taken by productions that made use of bold shifts in staging, and how this meant that the storytelling could be more filmic in its delivery and epic in its scope. My favourite part of working in this way is how intensely collaborative it is and the way in which it unifies the creative team.”

The Wider Earth. Photograph: supplied.

Now Sydneysiders will have the chance to witness Darwin’s journey aboard the Beagle when it comes to Sydney Festival in January. “It’s always such a joy to be able to give a project a second life and we’re incredibly grateful to be given the opportunity to bring it to Sydney,” Morton says. “We’re currently working on tweaking the show given what we learnt from the last season, and to make it more suitable for the new space. We all can’t wait to see it in the Drama Theatre.”

“I feel like Darwin and his work have become overly politicised in the last few decades as a sort of epicentre in the conflict between religion and science,” he adds. “I hope that the show goes some way towards showing that this tension is somewhat artificial, and that Darwin’s lifelong love affair with the natural world stands as a grand gesture that the two competing ideologies are actually agreeing with each other ­­– that we live in an incredible world, complex beyond our imagining, and that there is an order to it. Whether by the hand of god, or the hand of evolution, it becomes more perfect by the day.”

The Wider Earth plays the Sydney Festival from January 17 – 27

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