Murray Watts’ play Mr Darwin’s Tree, performed at St Mark’s on the 2nd and 3rd of November, had its audience gripped from its quiet opening – a man walking on and responding to bird song – to its thoughtful, heartfelt conclusion. It was simply but effectively presented – a flexible, interesting set with good sounds and lighting by Richard Peroni.
It is, as Murray Watts himself says, a play and not a lecture or a debate, so it presents the man (Charles Darwin) as a living character who shares with us both his inner wrestling about faith and love and his joyful wonder at the world.
At the heart of the play is Darwin’s relationship with his wife Emma. She was a convinced Christian and he, driven by an apparently unquenchable scientific curiosity, became increasingly agnostic.
Mr Darwin’s Tree was at its most touching – and sometimes its most funny – in bringing us close-ups of Charles Darwin with his family – with his gruff father, with his beloved daughter Annie and, of course, with Emma. In a sense, it’s as much a play about love as it is one about science, although the science – that unquenchable pursuit of the truth – is also woven into its fabric.
The play doesn’t preach or tell us what to think; rather it encourages us to empathise with the man in his anguish and his delight in the world.
It’s impossible to talk about Mr Darwin’s Tree without acknowledging the power and precision of Andrew Harrison’s performance. He told us the story – and played all the characters. Sometimes, with incredible deftness, he handed over a book or a letter and you could almost swear you saw two people making the exchange. And when he walked on and listened to the birds singing, you could see the birds as well as hear them.