The Wider Earth ★★★ (Natural History Museum, 9 October 2018)


The Natural History Museum is on to something with this foray into theatre, as the Jerwood Gallery is a beautiful setting for Charles Darwin's journey of a lifetime on the HMS Beagle. However, it feels as if the production is set so firmly as a school educational piece that it fails to soar as a drama for the masses.

There are plenty of positives - the stylistic elements really shine in this award-winning production. In particular, the wonderful puppetry is reminiscent of War Horse, and the illustrations projected onto the back canvas as if appearing in Darwin's journals are a nicely cinematic touch. When accompanied by the epic music, it captures the monumental importance of the journey in all its magical essence. Unfortunately, the seating format causes a few issues with the technical aspects. Large sections of the projection and puppetry are lost if you are in the front rows - the set is comprised of a looming wooden structure that obscures the back canvas, and any lovely little animals that scurry across the stage are lost behind the audiences head. Despite these minor problems, as a whole the performance is slick, pretty and takes you through Darwin's journey wonderfully.

However, as lovely as the play is, it's incredibly safe. The script is rather twee - despite covering a large expanse of riveting subjects such as slavery, scientific discovery vs religion, and colonialism, it does so with a secondary school brush - the conversations feel very structured, and never really delve too far into its implications. Therefore although it is a wonderful experience for young people to engage them in scientific content and production values, it lacks the emotional depth that could easily have been explored further in its raw subjects. The problem in what I assume is 'keeping it simple' to welcome a younger audience means it gets slightly caught in the limbo, where they are underestimating what a teenage audience could handle, and limiting its success by not critically engaging an adult audience.

Images

1 & 2. http://www.nhm.ac.uk/visit/exhibitions/the-wider-earth.html


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