Reviews, Stage, Theatre

The Wider Earth Theatre review (Bille Brown Theatre, Brisbane)

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The stars of this luminous production by David Morton aren’t the cast, flawless as they are as an ensemble, but the set, which dominates the revolve stage with the versatile majesty of a Frank Gehry creation. Think the undisputed masterpiece that is the Disney concert hall in Los Angeles, a cluster of eccentric shapes, that was nicknamed post-earthquake architecture, or a shoe box left out in the rain. It’s the first time I can remember seeing the Bille Brown Theatre used in revolve mode, and the shiny wooden planks of the structure, set at impossible angles, provide the outline of The Beagle, various interior rooms and cabins, and different residences back in England, which morph silently and naturally from one into another.

The second aspect of the set is the long white canvas backdrop that stretches across the back of the stage, on which projected pen-and-ink drawings of different landscapes are gradually splashed with water colour paints to create a fuller picture, taking us anywhere from the Galapagos Islands to the streets of an English port. We even have a convincing display of the famous fires of Tierra del Fuego.

This high quality animation and projection design is by Justin Harrison with sketch work by Anna Straker (who is also the captain of the puppets, as well as taking a minor role).

But the puppets! Oh yes, the puppets. Not as overwhelming as they have been in other Dead Puppet productions, because the story is of Charles Darwin’s long voyage on The Beagle (Darwin’s puppet dog is a beagle), the puppets here are all animals, from the giant Galapagos tortoise to the tiniest sea birds, with fish and iguana and even, to my delight, a blue-footed booby flying around Darwin’s head. As we have come to expect with this company, they are marvellously, wondrously wrought, with no attempt to capture reality, as the mechanisms are always on show.

But with just a few feathers on a frame for the birds, or a few flaps of brown and white fabric for the dog’s ears, these simple suggestions of animals come alive through the hands of the puppeteers, who again make no attempt to hide their own bodies, but become one with their creations, giving some of them real personalities – Polly the dog is so appealing you want to take her home, as she bounds up stairs to look adoringly into Darwin’s eyes, jumping all over him. There are even fish and crustaceans of various kinds, and a huge white albatross that makes you glad that the Ancient Mariner isn’t in this story. We go underwater to explore coral reefs, although I couldn’t find Nemo, thank goodness, because the production is too sophisticated for such obvious references.

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So as a visual spectacle this production is a work of genius, but there is also a story, concerning individuals who live and interact and face great moral decisions. We mostly think of Darwin as the brooding genius with full Victorian whiskers, but here he is a young man (played with the appealing intensity of youth by Tom Conroy) desperate not to be a clergyman, as the fate of so many mid-19th century graduates turned out to be.

When he is offered a place on the Beagle, he receives such discouragement from his father, who almost refuses to finance him, that he almost doesn’t go. His young first cousin, Emma Wedgwood, turns down his proposal as they didn’t know how long he would be away (it turned out to be five years), but she waits for him all the same, without telling him she will do so.

Their love affair bookends the story, and Lauren Jackson as Emma is no mushy Dickensian heroine, but stern and proud in her own right, a solid emotional foundation on which he can work through all his budding ideas about evolution and try to reconcile them with his own underlying beliefs.

It is on this voyage, reading Lyell’s Geology, that great tome of 1830, that he finally comes up with his own book, On the Origin of Species, which was a theory as world-shattering as Copernicus’s theory about the plants moving around the sun. Both men were ridiculed, both theories were dismissed and took many years to be accepted, but they were two of the most seminal discoveries ever made.

But the story is not about simply love and romance, or even just scientific discovery, for it covers even deeper moral and theological issues about the nature, or indeed the very existence of God. It’s a story about how the world was irrevocably changed, and how and why the strange longings for knowledge of a relatively simple but stubborn young man could change the world. There are enough thoughts there for anyone to ponder, and that’s why it’s not a simplified puppet show for kids. But for adults and thoughtful teenagers it one of the most awesome shows they’ll ever see, and for my money the best thing that’s been on in Brisbane this year..

If I’d been taught science like this at school, I probably would have become a scientist too.

[box]THE WIDER EARTH, by the Dead Puppet Society, presented by the Queensland Theatre Company at the Bille Brown Theatre, 78 Montague Road, South Brisbane. David Morton (writer, director, co-designer, puppet designer), with Nicholas Paine (creative producer), Aaron Barton (co-designer), David Walters (lighting). Until August 7. Recommended for those over 12 years. Duration approx two hours, with one interval.[/box]

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