Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
January 20, 2018

A beagle, Polly, bounds up to Charles Darwin, to greet the naturalist returned from his years at sea. The snuffling and affectionate Polly – trailing her costumed puppeteer – is a creation of Queensland’s Dead Puppet Society, and the first of many amazing creatures that populate The Wider Earth, a stunningly realised fictional account of Darwin’s history-making journey on board the HMS Beagle.

Wider EarthThe Wider Earth at the Sydney Festival. Photo © Jamie Williams

Written, directed and co-designed by Dead Puppet Society’s creative director David Morton, The Wider Earth – premiered by Queensland Theatre in 2016 – is simply beautiful. Combining theatre, puppetry, animation and music, the show gives a personal account of Darwin’s journey – through which he begins to develop his theories of evolution and the survival of the fittest – capturing the wide-eyed wonder of a young man from Shropshire marvelling at the magnificence of creation, and coming to conclusions that will set him in direct opposition to the established order.

We meet Charles on his return to England, reunited with Polly and his childhood sweetheart Emma, whose own life has continued moving forward in Charles’ absence, and to whom he relates his adventures. While this introduction reinforces the personal, intimate significance of the journey to Charles, the elegance of the framing device is undercut slightly when we flashback to scenes before Charles leaves on the Beagle, many of which Emma is present for (and would therefore not need to be told about).

But these scenes nonetheless set up the key motivations. The drifting, beetle-collecting Charles (Tom Conroy) is unenthusiastic about an offered posting at an Anglican parish and jumps at the chance to see the world as volunteer naturalist on the Beagle, while his pigeon-breeding father Robert (one of several roles played by David Lynch) would prefer him to grow up and get a real job – a hope shared by Emma (Emily Burton). He is encouraged, however, by Reverend John Henslow (played with quirky energy by Margi Brown Ash) who sees the blank slate of a young mind as ideal for undertaking such a voyage of discovery.

Wider EarthThe Wider Earth at the Sydney Festival. Photo © Jamie Williams

As adorable as the cooing, fluttering pigeons of England are – each tended by its own puppeteer – it is the journey where this show really comes to life. The timber, pyramid-like revolving stage serves as ship, hills and mountains, the actors and puppeteers spinning and climbing around it to create a constant feeling of motion and momentum.

The skeletal puppets move with beautiful realism – birds soar over the audience, fireflies rise into the air and sea creatures move through the water with fluid grace – against vividly coloured backdrops, controlled by puppeteers/actors. The way an iguana scurries over the rocks, for instance, is fantastic. Animations – designed by Justin Harrison – unfold above and behind the stage to illustrate maps and routes, thoughts and ideas, while a voiceover delivers passages from Darwin’s journal as narration. The score by Lior and Tony Buchen enhances the mood at every point, even if the sound, at times, is a little overbearing.

Wider EarthThe Wider Earth at the Sydney Festival. Photo © Jamie Williams

But against these magically rendered adventures, this is really a coming of age story. Charles has to find his feet emotionally, scientifically and spiritually, on a ship with tyrannical captain Robert Fitzroy (Anthony Standish) and friendly first officer John Wickham (Thomas Larkin), as well as Richard Matthews (Lynch) and his protégé Jemmy Button (Jaime Ureta), who hope together to establish a Christian mission in Tierra del Fuega. Conroy does a convincing job as the lead, charting Darwin’s personal growth in a role that has him in the spotlight for most of the performance.

While The Wider Earth has an epic, filmic quality the staging feels almost too large for the Drama Theatre. For those in the first few rows the wooden structure looms so high that other parts of the stage (particularly the projections) are partially obscured – seats further back allow for a fuller experience of the grandeur of this production.

But this is a beautifully crafted show that celebrates the diversity of life, the power of the natural world and the various evolving myths and ideas that have governed our understanding of it. In the final scene, Emma describes Darwin’s tale as compelling because it is about how “the world is ever more wonderful for the parts that make it whole” – the same can be said for The Wider Earth.


The Wider Earth is at the Sydney Opera House as part of the Sydney Festival until January 27.

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