Mr Darwin’s Tree

Last Friday the play Mr Darwin’s Tree was performed in Cambridge (one of two performances sponsored by the Faraday Institute as part of Cambridge University‘s Festival of Ideas). It’s  a one-man show written by Murray Watts and performed by Andrew Harrison, and was commissioned by the think-tank Theos, as part of their ‘Rescuing Darwin‘ Project in 2009. It lasts 70 minutes, and I was a bit worried that – it being Friday night – I would be likely to fall asleep. But Andrew Harrison was superb as Darwin (at various ages), Darwin’s father, Darwin’s wife Emma, his Daughter Alice, the captain of the Beagle, and a number of other characters. The young Darwin’s list of pro’s and cons of getting married is hilarious!

It was almost completely historically accurate, though I’m sure interpretations of events and Darwin’s papers will vary. Watts, I think, has picked out the essentials of Darwin’s life, and retold them in a very immediate way. There is much to empathise with, and the use of some of Darwin’s letters adds another layer of immediacy. The play focuses in on Darwin’s development of evolutionary theory (without delving into the scientific details) and parallel loss of faith, as well as the responses to his new theory from a number of different people. It brings out the tension between science and evolutionary theory that people felt at the time, but also shows the nuances in the various responses. Watts clearly wants to challenge the standard simplistic ‘science at war with faith’ myth.  In the end, the play has a positive message from both a faith and a scientific perspective. Very entertaining, very thought provoking, it will probably make you cry – and they’re open to booking more performances around the country…

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