Sydney Festival: The Wider Earth

Tony Ling
24th Jan 2018

An enchanting and remarkable concept falls before the audience within the Drama Theatre of the Sydney Opera House. It’s a production that blurs the lines between cinema, theatre, and music resulting in something that is truly unique. Set in the more youthful and innocent times of the famed biologist Charles Darwin who helmed a very iconic theory of evolution, the story plants him from the beginning to the end of his legendary five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle.

The production has some beautiful depth in some parts, but it takes until after the intermission for these moments to actually have soul and dramatic impact for the viewer. The first half's plot is somewhat formulaic in its inception of the characters that make up the ship's crew that accompanies Darwin on this grand adventure. You have the devout priest, the idealistic captain, all very shoehorn characters that contain objectives for the plot that you can see a mile away.

A lot of the first half is really devoted in the beauty of the adventure, and it does not hesitate to spend a lot of time to capture it. Especially on the puppets. Here you have specially designed exoskeletal dolls of various animals in various proportions that are manipulated by humans in a marionette-like hand contraption. The intricate, circular and exoskeletal design of these puppets makes them wieldy in motion as well as movement.

However it is far from a immersive experience. In the many enchanting scenes where the music and the cast dedicate themselves to the attention of the waltzing puppet animals, the actors manning it right beside the puppet animal often pulls you out of the wonder and makes you wonder about the technical process of the puppets rather than sailing with the plot’s love letter to curious animals. That is not to say the actors who played a pivotal role in the scene before this puppet’s inclusion didn’t do a good job giving life to the puppet. It is just too distracting to be able to see that very character still in costume booming their concentrated face and looming over the animal with his or her stride. It’s an uncanny experience of style over substance.

You may argue that productions of the famed puppet musical: Avenue Q also did this, but they did it with more subtly. Leading cast members did not divert to various animals continually reminding you that the burdened Captain also just so happens to puppeteer some birds and a turtle. Plus the puppets of Avenue Q were wholly covered with colour and life-like physical features. These animal puppets while amazing wonders of engineering, were sometimes barely coated with anything, revealing their inner exoskeletons and mechanical workings that made them look more like soulless remnants of a Westworld fanfiction rather than the animals of wonder that inspires so many to love nature. What makes them resemble their respective animals is usually just their silhouette and bodily features.

A theatre production is built on the sublimeness of the human process. Ambition can be a tricky thing. Here in the background of the stage, you had a fantastic curved widescreen banner projection of assorted CGI vistas that help establish the environments that our heroes come across in their sailing adventures. This is accompanied by a beautiful score that offers many variations of tone colour to show the beauty and sometimes the peril of adventure. Yet, some of these computer animated landscapes were slightly choking on its own frame rate like a video game. This matched with an epic soundtrack, and the faces of actors staring happily into the distance make for a combination of different mediums that sometimes dissonates rather than immerses. It almost makes me and my plus one crave for a genuinely cinematic movie like Interstellar as the production progressed with all its pretentious features trying hard to remind you about how authentic it's trying to be.

There is hope though. If the projected footage and the puppets are given further polish and revisions, immersion would definitely increase. Maybe if there was a budget to include separate anonymous puppeteers in black that can man the puppets from the inside like that good'ol plant from The Little Shop of Horrors, then it could be really cool. The second half of this production really has some emotional weights leading to beautiful and satisfying moments in the plot. The actors gave top notch performances. The themes of faith and science are very relevant in this weary digital world. Plus, you certainly learn a thing or two about history, science and the life of a simpler time. This production would be an incredible show for children to go to as it offers so many beautiful mediums of artistic expression to inspire their young fertile minds.

In the 21st century, every medium and genre is deciding to intertwine, from Transmedia Storytelling to the inclusion of ‘story-driven' video games. The world of the arts is certainly trying to innovate. But in the end, it's good to learn how to walk before we run. Don't you agree?