Photo: Dylan Evans

Posted by & filed under Arts & Entertainment, Theatre & Performance.

Few would have read Darwin’s account of his voyage on The Beagle, so it makes for interesting theatre when one’s preconceptions are shattered.

The scientist we credit for the theory of evolution and its mechanism, natural selection, almost missed his vocation to become a country parson as his father wished.

Moreover, his position as a self-funded supernumerary on the HMS Beagle was only achieved through the intercession of his uncle, Josiah Wedgwood, with his father. Who knew he faced such difficulties?

The centre of the stage is occupied by what appears to be a large collection of boulders which revolve to reveal, variously, the deck of the Beagle, a drawing room, a mountain top in the Tierra del Fuego, and an outdoor scene on the Galapagos Islands, while the film projection on the back wall of the stage shows a starry night, a dynamic map of The Beagle’s travels or the murky depths of the ocean, among other things.

The astoundingly beautiful puppets produced by writer, director and co-designer David Morton and his Dead Puppet Society are mostly extinct animals, over 30 in all: seabirds, whales, sharks, fish, an armadillo that rolls itself into a ball when threatened, and not one but two life-size Galapagos tortoises, and many more.

The text, taken largely from Darwin’s account of the journey, is voiced by Tom Conroy as the naturalist. Other cast members take on multiple roles. Emily Burton plays Emma Wedgwood, David Lynch plays Charles’ father Robert Darwin and Margi Brown Ash plays the Rev. John Henslow, and all but Conroy become animal handlers who have the job of articulating the wings, legs, and bodies of animals Darwin sees and records.

This visually stunning piece of piece of theatre enchants both adults and children as they watch a great mind struggling to make sense of seashells on mountain tops and other weighty questions.

This has got to be my favourite show in the Sydney Festival line-up. Go see it, you won’t be disappointed.

A note to the sound techie: lower the volume of the excellent music score (Lior and Tony Buchan) so that the audience can hear the text.

Until Jan 27. Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney. $53-$69+b.f. Tickets & Info: www.sydneyfestival.org.au

Reviewed by Irina Dunn.