Jack Studio Theatre – until 31 August 2019
Kākāriki Theatre Company aim to showcase great New Zealand writing and theatre, and this is their first UK production.
Arthur Meek may well have written some great plays, but this isn’t one of them. Promotional material states that the play recounts the courage of a visionary who must battle his conscience to change the world, but Meek’s Darwin is an insipid ineffectual scientist taking refuge on his sickbed and in his study, breeding increasingly sickly pigeons and children as the world spins around him. (Portrayed most effectively by the cast repeatedly rotating the set around Darwin as he stands in a trance-like state.)
Darwin was undoubtedly brilliant, but he wasn’t the most exciting man (he spent years studying barnacles!) and was only stirred into publication after the much more interesting Alfred Russel Wallace came to the same conclusions independently, but he can’t possibly have been this dull. Meek starts the play some years after Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, with his thoughts about natural selection already formed and distils the entire controversy surrounding the publication of On the Origin of Species into two hours (although it seems much longer). At home in Kent, Darwin (Gavin Harrington-Odedra) is visited by two people, Alfred Thomas (Richard Stranks) and John Roberts (Michael Tuffnell), instantly recognisable as representing Wallace and Robert Fitzroy, captain of the Beagle. This sets up the visionaries against the stuffy establishment, but becomes increasingly frustrating, especially in the second act as Meek crams as many of Darwin’s supporters’ and opponents’ voices as possible into the two composite characters. Thomas begins as a boyish, wide-eyed scientist, full of awe at the wonders of the world and morphs into a rabid anti-establishment revolutionary, an espouser of eugenics, and Darwin’s bulldog, Thomas Henry Huxley. Roberts swerves back and forth between initially supportive fellow scientists questioning the mechanics of the process and religious figures. Meek can’t resist slipping in the Huxley/Soapy Sam ape argument, and there has obviously been a lot of research put into the writing, but it just doesn’t work. Using only two voices to present the arguments and debate surrounding the theory of evolution is a disaster, as both Darwin’s supporters and detractors had myriads of different questions and reasons for their stands and it all becomes a huge jumble of ideas. Meek may just have well had Thomas and Roberts dressed as a devil and an angel standing at Darwin’s shoulder whispering “Publish” and “Don’t publish” for two hours. It would have had the same effect as this overly verbose script – it’s no wonder that some members of the cast sometimes lost track of their lines. It’s as if the only characters Meek feels anything for and imbues with any real and lasting humanity are Gardner, Darwin’s loyal assistant, played with a light touch by Richard Houghton-Evans (a welcome relief whenever he appeared, as you knew there’d be a comedic moment) and Emma Darwin. Paula James impresses as Emma, showing her devotion, faith and strength with a deft hand. So strong is Emma next to Charles (with Harrington-Odedra playing him exactly as written – a dithering, strangely spiritless little man) that you expect her to jump up at the end and shout “It was ME who wrote the damn book!”.
The cast do their best and will become more at home with their roles over the run, and likewise director Jessica Jeffries attempts to instil a little drama into the turgid material, but the play does the exact opposite of what it sets out to do, making Darwin appear frankly pathetic. Not the best way to celebrate the 160th anniversary of publication.