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November 25, 2009 | by  | in Arts Theatre |
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Collapsing Creation

theatre

What is there left to say about Charles Darwin? In this year of his dual anniversary (150 years since the publication of The Origin of Species and 200 years since his birth), we have seen a glut of work discussing him and, more specifically, his work on and towards the ideas of evolution. It’s been hard to move these days without bumping into some tract on natural selection or the other. We all know the basics, the fundamentals of the ideas he imparted into the world.

Collapsing_Creation_artwork Meek is clearly smart enough to have worked that out. In his play on Darwin, Collapsing Creation, he focuses very much on Darwin the man behind the world changing ideas. The Origin of Species does figure heavily as do the controversial theories (at least at the time they were) within it, but they are always portrayed or discussed in terms of their emotional impact, their human cost to Darwin. Brilliantly, Meek does not simply dwell on Darwin and evolution to support his play, avoiding the easy downfall of making nothing more than a dry biography all plugged with up with facts and blah. It is also peppered with discussions of wider ideas. It asks questions of authorship and ethics, friendship and control, family and familiarity, faith and fact. It goes much deeper than Darwin, but never distracts from the story that is there to be told.

Meek has compressed forty years of Darwin’s life down to one day, split into four acts (Morning, Afternoon, Evening and Night). This is an interesting device and, to be honest, I am not entirely sold on it. It becomes an oddity of constantly shifting time scale. We are much reminded that eights years pass between the morning and the afternoon, but at the end a glorious and almost heart-wrenching moment turns around Darwin’s memory of the previous day and how none of this mattered to him then. There is something very interesting in the compressed, yet distended timescale, I just wish it was slightly more refined or focused. That issue of timescale and another niggle to do with the play’s sole representation of the people who extended and expanded Darwin’s ideas (that people have extended his ideas beyond him is a key part of his story, there are very good arguments that modern evolutionary theory bears little resemblance to Darwin’s ideas beyond being a starting point) being quick to turn to fascism and eugenics aside, Meek has written a powerhouse of a script and while at times it does become a little too dense and literary for its own good. It stands easily as a great achievement and a great step forward as a writer.

collapThe performances are uniformly excellent. Peter Hambleton shows a bruised precision and drive as Darwin, never shaking or faltering with the great weight of this play and this man and these ideas on his shoulders. Catherine Downes plays Emma, Darwin’s long suffering, devotedly Christian wife, with a poise, deportment and depth that would have been show stealingly heartbreaking if the rest of the cast were not possessed of equally superlative talent. Christopher Brougham plays Joseph Gardiner, a composite of all forgotten little men who helped Darwin up his stepladder to brilliant, with a sharp comic edge and pleasing underlying warmth. Eddie Campbell’s turn as John Roberts, who represents the old school against which Darwin so unwillingly kicked, is a marvel of fine lines and underplayed emotions. Campbell understands that we don’t need to see someone feel something to understand them feeling it. Rounding out the cast is Gareth Williams as Alfred Thomas, who stands in for the younger generation who took Darwin’s ideas and ran with them, who gives a brilliant performance of a cloud of big smug, big teeth and big ideas.

David O’Donnell’s direction is direct and dazzling in its simplicity. With quick drips of shadow play flitting between acts, O’Donnell understands the need to just trust the material and his unerring eye for clean but powerful staging. Brian King’s set design straddles the modern day and the period under theatrical discussion, modern materials making up an evocative palette on which the acting occurs. Ulli Briese’s lighting is, as always, beautiful and fits the world of the play and the work like a glove.

Collapsing Creation is a good, solid piece of work. An entertaining, profoundly well-made (if somewhat overly traditional at times) production that sits nicely as an cap to the theatrical year.

Collapsing Creation
Written by Arthur Meek
Directed by David O’Donnell
With Peter Hambleton, Catherine Downes, Christopher Brougham, Eddie Campbell and Gareth Williams

At Downstage, 5 – 28 November 2009
Book at www.downstage.co.nz

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About the Author ()

Uther was one of the two arts editors in 2009. He was the horoscopier and theatre writer in 2010. Alongside Elle Hunt, Uther was coeditor in 2011.

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  1. Freya says:

    Really uther? Really?

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