The Wider Earth
QTC & Dead Puppet Society
Bille Brown Studio
July 9 – August 7 2016
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
The discoveries Darwin made while onboard the Beagle rewrote our understanding of the world.
An epic journey, a quest of the soul; a question of creator or creation by nature… Darwin threw his theory of evolution into the mix of Christian faith and fear, and unveiled in 1859 in his book, On the Origin of Species, Darwin’s thinking changed the way we view and understand the world and its inhabitants.
The Wider Earth is a complete and thoroughly complex experience, drawing us into the detail, and the wonder and excitement of Darwin’s discoveries. We journey across the seas with twenty-two year old Darwin as he sets out to observe a whole new world and record his findings, only to leave his detailed notes behind him, in Tasmania, struck by crippling self-doubt, ready to abandon five years of work and his newly formed beliefs about the natural order of things, based on what he’d observed and knew to be true, despite the indoctrination of society at the time by the church.
Last night I finally realised how I’d been feeling about QTC & Dead Puppet Society’s vivid imagining of The Wider Earth… wonderment. The curiosity and wonder of a child – before she is trained by the adults of her intriguing, impatient world to hurry up, and keep up and stop messing about in the garden – fascinated all over again by story and science presented in this unique way, and completely blown away by the design elements and the manipulation of the puppets, integral in this impressive world premiere.
In fact, this is the first production in a long time in which I’ve felt the entire audience completely immersed in the story from start to finish. A much younger audience than opening night enjoyed, the first Monday evening performance saw a couple of secondary school groups in the mix. And Poppy. This always changes the experience and I know some adults prefer not to hear the self-conscious laughter and the comments that teens whisper during a production but I love to see young people – all people – connecting and engaging with the arts. I love witnessing the moments of enlightenment, when the kids realise how all the elements combine in that mystical, magical, alchemical way of theatre and suddenly, they get it. In this case, an intriguing rom-com lens was cast over the show; I enjoyed hearing the giggles and squeals of delight from the girls, and the hearty applause before the final moments, testament to the entertainment value of this production, as well as its quality and substance (a trifecta rarely seen, if we’re honest). The Wider Earth is living, breathing theatre of the most intoxicating kind. We feel that it’s evolving even as we experience it. It’s the most exciting culmination of brilliant minds and skills, and real support networks in Brisbane in a long time. If only this was the result of every creative process: this feeling of immense pride, and true ownership and sheer joy, shared.
We enter the Bille Brown Studio after catching up in the foyer with everybody else who’d missed The Wider Earth opening night (having committed to the opening night of We Will Rock You – n.b. the early invites, folks!), passing a timber ship-pretending-to-be-a-rock structure that reminds me of the outback texture, colour and shape of the central feature of The Rabbits. It’s necessarily more versatile, serving as an imposing mountain, a gentle slope, a row boat, a number of landscapes, interiors, stormy waves and the deck of the HMS Beagle. It revolves. It’s brilliant. There are few full revolves used to their full potential and this is one design (David Morton & Aaron Barton) that doesn’t disappoint. Above it is a panoramic screen, lashed and hung with ship’s rope. The images cast across it begin as if we’re inside the pages of Beatrix Potter’s journal and become the entire universe. More on this aspect later; Justin Harrison has outdone himself here, muscling in on a space previously occupied by the talented boys from optikal bloc and Markell Presents.
Tom Conroy, whom we remember from MTC/La Boite’s Cock, fearlessly embraces the complexities of young Darwin; his vulnerability and fears, his sense of wonder and obsessive attention to detail, his self-loathing, and his ambition and determination to develop his ground-breaking, game-changing theory. This is fine casting and a stand-out performance from Conroy.
On board the Beagle with Darwin is the conflicted Captain Robert Fitzroy (Anthony Standish, in his most impressive role to date, balancing light and dark and various shades of grey to create a commanding presence without losing lightness and genuine human connections towards the end), Father Richard Matthews (David Lynch), John Wickham (Thomas Larkin) and Jemmy Button (Jonty Martin). They are joined by Lauren Jackson as Darwin’s fierce and ambitious, very patient sweetheart (and his eventual wife), Emma Wedgwood, and Margi Brown Ash as both Reverend John Henslow & John Herschel. We hear from the outset the rich tones of Robert Coleby as the voice of old Darwin, landing us in the present with minds open to the stories of the past, and we see the extraordinary prowess and emotional investment of Anna Straker, Puppet Captain and notably, adorably, Polly the beagle. It’s a stellar ensemble, worthy of a new award category nom…
We’re transported across vast seas and exotic lands by a timeless original cinematic score by ARIA Award Winner (and Woodford Folk Festival’s Mystery Bus superstar), Lior and producer/songwriter Tony Buchen, with a sweeping sound design by Tony Brumpton and superb ambient lighting by David Walters. The combination of elements elevates this production not only to national tour but to world tour status, if only someone would invest in this piece of theatre at the same level as men’s sport in this country. (That would also equate to a film option for international distribution, just saying). Justin Harrison’s projection art (with sketches from the original photo-composites by Straker) is an astounding success, taking us from Great Britain to the ends of the earth and back again, and into the mind of Charles Darwin.
I’d love to see inside David Morton’s mind (Writer, Director, Co-Designer and Puppet Designer). I think The Wider Earth is a glimpse at how it works, but no more than The Harbinger or Argus was…there’s obviously so much more to come. It’s quite extraordinary, really. It’s another extraordinary production. It will impress aficionados of old and new theatrical forms and also appeal to those who have never seen anything outside of the cinema or their own living room. The Wider Earth, in one form or another, is destined for a much wider audience. (This season was close to selling out before it opened).
It’s not the sort of theatre we see often. We often see theatre that is touted, celebrated and promoted as something like this. But it’s nothing like it. This is an epic tale made so intimate that we feel every atom is a part of the storytelling. And why are we even surprised by its stunning success on stage?! Dead Puppet Society have raised the bar – have been raising the bar – in visual theatre since 2009; it’s largely due to the support of our two major theatre companies that we’ve seen the work come this far this quickly, however; the simple fact is that Morton and Dead Puppet Society Creative Producer, Nicholas Paine, see the world differently, and they see the business of putting on a show differently, and they’re able to present their ideas in a complex and highly technical, yet incredibly childlike way, unfolding immense notions and universal truths and heavy moral dilemmas before our eyes, capturing our hearts before we’ve realised we’ve changed and in reflection, remembered how vulnerable we are. This is the little company that could, and does, despite so many major challenges facing artists and producers in this country, which stop others in their tracks.
Meanwhile, only the strongest survive, and Dead Puppet Society continue to prove they are intrepid explorers of the world, forging their own path, reimagining the landscape, terraforming the theatre industry.
The Wider Earth is breathtakingly beautiful, an emotional, visceral theatrical experience. For artists within, and for audiences on the outside of a dynamic and diverse industry that is continuously changing and growing and stalling and starting again, and never quite stepping out of its own way, The Wider Earth is a truly inspiring theatrical event, serving as a gently powerful reminder that we really do exist only to evolve as much as we can before we expire, as artists, and as human beings who share this planet.
You will see nothing more magical this year. The Wider Earth – its vast and intimate beauty – will stay with you long after the lights go down.
Production pics by Dylan Evans. Portrait of Tom Conroy by Susan Hetherington. Compilation of projection art by Justin Harrison.