Trumpery, a play about Charles Darwin, Alfred Wallace and "On the Origins of Species"

Tue 10th – Sat 14th June 2014


Michael Rabbitte

at 09:54 on 11th Jun 2014



Peter Parnell’s script is one which, as Helen Taylor, the director of ElevenOne Theatre’s production of ‘Trumpery,’ says, takes “a few liberties with some of the biographical details of Darwin’s life.” This is no criticism, with the resulting play manifesting what Taylor calls the attempt “to bridge the gap between science and art.” ‘Trumpery,’ then, is not an adaptation of the known history and biography of Darwin the scientist, but a story exploring how his revolutionary theory might have potentially affected Darwin the man. Joseph Kenneway gave an excellently ranged performance in which he convincingly portrayed Darwin as a man of many roles. Whether as the timid husband or the fierce intellect, the audience was never left without an intimate view into the mind and struggles of the main character. Kenneway’s stamina is also to be commended; despite appearing in every scene, his intensity only got greater as the play went on.

Although The Origin of Species contains a theory concerning the past, present, and future of all life, the main focus of Parnell’s play is the domestic: we begin in Down House (the Darwin family home), and never leave it. This, along with the compactness of the Simpkins Lee Theatre at Lady Margaret Hall, sets the scene for a psychological and emotive production in which Ida Persson (Emma Darwin), Daniel Taylor (George Darwin), and Chloe Coker-Taney (Annie Darwin) all gave a necessarily credible and honest performance as Darwin’s family, helping to clearly establish the tension between the family and scientific lives. The clear brandishing of plant life and soil on the stage may seem an obvious form of mise-en-scène to many, however I found such stagecraft a useful reminder that the protagonist of this play is not merely a man grappling with his belief in God, and nor is he a husband struggling with family tragedy – he is a prolific scientist with profound insights into the world around him. This said, I felt the lighting was, in places, flat, and more variation – such as in the night-time scene – would have been welcomed.

Naturally, the debate as to whether the implications of Natural Selection would, as the ‘Trumpery’ Darwin fears, “murder God” lie beneath every indecision and hesitancy regarding the publication of On the Origin of Species. It is an argument that has been going on ever since it was released, and it was therefore refreshing to see a comic – but by no means flippant – portrayal of this question between Darwin’s contemporaries. ‘Darwin’s Bulldog,’ Thomas Henry Huxley, who famously debated the issue at Oxford’s Natural History Museum, is played by Adam Potterton, whose excellent delivery of wit and demanding stage presence stood out brilliantly. Potterton’s animated performance in pushing Darwin to publish worked well against the more intimate and emotive scenes of the biologist’s family life, and it was well received. “What does [Richard] Owen believe? Sign me up for the opposite!”, Parnell’s character declares, successfully bringing to life the aggression and vivacity with which Huxley debated.

The question ringing in my head as I left the theatre was one questioning the point of the play. The events we see are, although based on Darwin’s actual life, largely fictional, and the real Darwin was no doubt different in many ways to Parnell’s representation. The answer, I believe, lies in recognising that such a dramatisation is the only real way to make science and scientists relevant to the public once their theories have been understood. The appeal is that the production presents the known – Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of Natural Selection – in a new light. ‘Trumpery’ is an enjoyable exploration into this new light, making Darwin not just a figure of science, but a figure of humanity and emotion. It changes what we think we know in order to explore a new space in an old debate: as Helen Taylor usefully tells us in the programme to her production, “the beauty of theatre is that it presents these familiar things to us afresh”.


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