Collapsing Creation

Downstage Theatre, Wellington

05/11/2009 - 28/11/2009

Production Details


In 1859, Darwin’s theory of evolution shook humanity, confronted science and challenged religion, including the profound faith of his beloved wife Emma. Arthur Meek’s bold new play Collapsing Creation explores the courage of a visionary who must battle his conscience and soul to change the world – and find the strength to face the fallout.

Starring Peter Hambleton as Charles Darwin and Catherine Downes as his devout wife Emma, Collapsing Creation is a heartfelt and fascinating account of what happens when ideas, faith and reason collide.

Commissioned by the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution as part of worldwide celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s masterpiece: On the Origin of Species. 

In the beginning there was the word and the word was God until Darwin; then the world went ape! 


150 years ago Darwin came up with the Theory of Evolution. This year Downstage in association with Conditional Productions presents Collapsing Creation by Arthur Meek, commissioned by the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution as part of worldwide celebrations marking the publication of Darwin’s masterpiece: On the Origin of Species

Darwin visited NZ on the Beagle in 1835 

THE PRODUCTION: Collapsing Creation 

Collapsing Creation follows the development of Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the dramatic aftermath of its publication. ‘On the Origin of Species’ confronts the rigid scientific orthodoxy of his time, challenges religion including the profound faith of his wife Emma and ultimately evolves into ideas beyond his imagination or control.

The phrase ‘Survival of the Fittest’ was not coined by Charles Darwin. 

THE AUTHOR: Arthur Meek.
Short listed for the 2009 Bruce Mason Playwriting award, Collapsing Creation represents a bold new direction into dramatic work for writer, Arthur Meek, who is better known for his comedic talents.  In 2008, he won the Chapman Tripp Award for Best Male Newcomer for his performance in the Downstage production of On the Conditions and Possibilities of Helen Clark Taking Me as Her Young Lover. He was also nominated for a Billy T award this year as part of The Lonesome Buckwhips.

Only 45% of Americans believe in Darwin’s Evolution Theory – CBS News Poll 

THE COMPANY: Downstage Theatre 
This November, the theatre turns 45 and to celebrate patrons and supporters have been encouraged to share their ‘best and worst’ Downstage stories. These will be displayed throughout the theatre and on our website during the month of November. To mark the occasion, there is a special gala performance of Collapsing Creation on the 20th, organized by the Downstage Theatre Society. 

Dates: 5-28 NOV
Times: 6:30pm Tue-Wed and 8pm Thu-Sat.
Prices: $25 to $45.  Meet the Artists: Tue 10 NOV
Matinee: Sat 21 NOV – 2pm
Downstage Theatre Society 45th Birthday event: Fri 20 NOV

Tickets can be purchased online, by phone at (04) 801 6946 or in person at Downstage’s box office.
For up-to-date information visit  
Downstage is proudly sponsored by BNZ.


Downstage and The Royal Society are proud to present a free lecture series alongside Collapsing Creation.

Darwin’s Inspirational Voyage
Dr. Hamish Campbell, Te Papa and GNS Science Geologist
Saturday 7th November, 6:00pm

Sexual Selection in Evolution
Dr. Alan Dixson, Professorial Research Fellow, Victoria University
Saturday 14th November, 6:00pm

Evolution in New Zealand
Dr. Steve Trewick, Senior Lecturer, Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution
Saturday 21st November, 6:00pm

Panel Discussion: The Evolution of a Theory
Dr. Charles Daugherty -Director, Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology & Evolution
Paul Morris -Victoria University Religious Studies Professor
Bernard Beckett -Science writer and schoolteacher
Chaired by Hilary Beaton, Downstage Director
Saturday 28th November, 6:00pm

Charles Darwin...... Peter Hambleton
Emma Darwin....... Catherine Downes
Joseph Gardiner... Christopher Brougham
John Roberts......... Eddie Campbell
Alfred Thomas...... Gareth Williams

Set Design............ Brian King
Lighting Design.... Ulli Briese
Set Builders.......... Iain Cooper and John Hodgkins
Set Painter............ Eileen McCann
Producer............... Geoff Pinfield and Arthur Meek 
                               for ConditionalProductions Ltd

2hrs 20 mins, incl. interval

Profoundly well-made

Review by Uther Dean 01st Dec 2009

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.

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.

The 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.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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Meek and wild

Review by Lynn Freeman 12th Nov 2009

"Scientific discovery is a sport" – that’s from the man who knew what was at stake when he published his radical work, The Origin of the Species.

Arthur Meek brings the bewhiskered Darwin to life in his play, showing us his funny, loving, obsessive and eccentric sides and his competitive nature. 

This is an assured piece of work from Meek who’s proving himself to be an actor and writer of remarkable talent. It’s also beautifully performed, astutely directed and deliciously set. The play needs trimming in the first half, getting bogged down in long detailed conversations. You get the impression the writer couldn’t bear to leave out the treasures he discovered during the course of his research. That aside, it’s a delight.

The play looks at the eight years before the publication of Darwin’s magnum opus, when he gets sidetracked into studying insects and almost loses the race to publish a comprehensive argument for evolution.

Peter Hambleton and Catherine Downes bring their years of experience at characterisation to their roles of Peter and Emma Darwin. Christopher Brougham hits just the right note as Darwin’s loyal servant/friend Joseph Gardiner, as does Eddie Campbell playing his argumentative colleague John Roberts.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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Darwin play a tour-de-force

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 09th Nov 2009

Downstage’s run of successes with New Zealand work rolls on with Arthur Meek’s enthralling play about Charles Darwin, which was commissioned by the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution to celebrate the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth and first performed earlier this year in Nelson.

Collapsing Creation is, as David O’Donnell describes it, an intimate epic in which we observe in rich detail Darwin’s intimate life as well as the tsunami-like effect his theories had on the world, despite Darwin’s surprise that "I should have influenced to a considerable extent the beliefs of scientific men on some important points."

Like the Victorian silhouettes of the characters that are shown at times throughout the play, Meek’s drama is an outline, an impression of Darwin’s life and theories over forty years, which have been collapsed into just one day and just five characters, three of whom represent his companion, his opponents, and supporters.

But at the heart of the play is the relationship between Darwin and his wife, the extraordinary Emma, who are played by Peter Hambleton and Catherine Downes at the top of their form. Hambleton brings out not only Darwin’s simplicity and integrity and his passion for science but also what Darwin described as his "own lack of quickness of apprehension or wit."

Catherine Downes conveys the strength of Emma’s personality and religious beliefs with a stunning performance and Meek has provided her with scenes that make it quite clear Emma was the loving power behind the throne despite the threat of her husband’s theories to her deeply-held faith.

Eddie Campbell plays all of Darwin’s opponents rolled into one and Gareth Williams plays all the supporters (and distorters) rolled into one, while Christopher Brougham plays the ever-faithful assistant to Darwin – as well as providing most of the amusing comedy of which there is more than you would think. All give passionate, impressive performances.

David O’Donnell’s production with its startling opening scene, its use of music to underpin scenes, its theatricality and its ability to convey intellectual as well emotional depths is a tour de force which, of course, could not occur without Arthur Meek’s brilliant script. Bravo!
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.


Corus November 11th, 2009

 Nowhere in my post did I request that you or anyone else agree with my views, simply that you respect them, as we all should with people with whom we disagree if we want constructive discussion. Dismissing people with whom you disagree (or their ‘palate’) as immature is hardly respectful; and how or why the play is likely to be ‘hijacked’, whatever that means, simply because I didn’t think much of it, is a mystery to me. A site such as yours surely should be welcoming a variety of views, not trying to close debate down.

On another matter, I did not realise when I signed up to this site that this would mean you would feel free to access my email address and send personal messages.  I did not give my permission for this and sincerely hope that it doesn’t happen again.

John Smythe November 11th, 2009

While I certainly respect your right to have a different view, ‘corus’, that does not mean I have to agree with it. My desire to put your anonymous comment into perspective is out of concern that the excellence of Collapsing Creation, in script and production, is not hijacked. I might not have felt so moved if you had posted your comment under your real name.  PS: It is your ‘theatre-tasting palate’ I call immature, not you. I well recall when my own was that way too.  

Corus November 11th, 2009

 I suggest that it's Mr Smythe's apparent inability to respect views different from his own that betrays immaturity. Personal abuse of this sort does nothing to encourage serious debate.

John Smythe November 11th, 2009

Normally I welcome contrary opinions and let them stand on their own merits. But since ‘corus’ chooses to post under a pseudonym I feel obliged to point out that this is the person who loved the over-acting and lack of subtlety in Sit On It.  That s/he is apparently unable to perceive, let alone value, the multiple levels on which Collapsing Creation works, and writes off as “too old” actors capable of honouring the richness of its subtext, says more about this correspondent that the play or production. An immature palate, I’d call it; not yet aware of what it is missing.

Corus November 10th, 2009

 I completely disagree with the complimentary reviews of Collapsing Creation. I felt the performances were tired and wooden, and the production pedestrian and unsubtle of a script that I suspect deserved better. It was also very badly cast.  The main characters were too old, which was distracting.  There was no convincing engagement, with all actors speaking past and at each other. At best I felt it made a competent amateur show. I do wonder why reviewers seem to routinely set their sights so low.

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If you’re human, this will engage you

Review by John Smythe 06th Nov 2009

Collapsing the essence of the Charles Darwin story into three acts in one room with five actors is a remarkable act of creation.  

Distilled into what looks like one day – morning, afternoon, evening – that in fact spans forty years, Collapsing Creation sparkles with heartfelt passion and humour as it pits scientific rigour against religious faith, personal concerns against those of all of humanity, the immediate family against the family of humankind. Its potent chemistry generates telling insights into class, gender roles, professional jealousy and profound love.

This can only have occurred through an evolutionary process of intuitive and intelligent selection. 

Playwright Arthur Meek is a formidable force of creative nature. Rather than slowly build his career as an actor of note since graduating from Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama school just three years ago, he has skill- and genre-jumped with alacrity.* This major new work blends the scholarly playfulness of a Michael Frayn (Copenhagen) with the social commentary and lucid linguistic wit of a latter-day George Bernard Shaw.

Commissioned by The Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolutionary Studies to mark the 2ooth anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his life-changing work The Origin of Species, Meek’s Collapsing Creation is extremely pertinent right now, in a world threatened by religious intolerance and the inability of many to embrace diversity in their own communities. The core questions of human identity – where did we come from? why are we here? where are we headed? – also permeate the play.

Director David O’Donnell ensures all the actors draw their energies from the play’s vitally pumping human heart and fully engage with the passions that drive each of their actions. Any negative preconceptions you may have of dialogue-driven dramas set in Victorian drawing rooms are dispelled by a sense that this room houses the nucleus of something that radiates world-wide.

The set and lighting are intelligently designed. Brian King’s set, with one chaise longue and featuring a huge table laden with manuscripts and specimen jars – the props, created or collected by King and producer Geoff Pinfield, are superb – is backed by translucent panels that hint at walls and also serve as screens for silhouette images, staged live. Lighting designer Ulli Briese also conjures a sense of greenhouse growth beyond this hothouse of endeavour, while subtly suggesting the passing times of day.

Two excursions into the auditorium, first by Darwin then by him and the young naturalist Alfred Thomas, break the ‘fourth wall’ in an effort, presumably, to cast us as the wider world to which the story relates. The second one works better, in that it foreshadows an address to the boffins at Oxford University, but I am not sure it improves the drama to break the ‘hermetic seal’ of the play’s microcosmic view of humanity. Also, while I’m being picky, the final silhouette is not needed as, unlike the others, it trivialises an important emotional moment that goes to the heart of our capacity to love and respect those with whom we profoundly disagree. 

Peter Hambleton is at his best, infusing Charles Darwin with a huge vocational passion that transcends the limitations of his less-than-perfect health, while trying to manage the realities of a world not yet quite ready for him. The relationship between him and Catherine Downes’ Emma, his wife, is profoundly loving through fair weather and foul.

With great sensitivity Downes conveys Emma’s evolution from class-conscious mistress of a large household to a woman fully engaged with intelligent life. Her capacity to accommodate her husband’s scientific theories while maintaining her faith in a Christian God and ‘the good book’ from which she reads, and to finally include all members of the household as part of her extended family, exemplifies the play’s ‘message’ beautifully.

"I’ve collapsed many of the hobby breeders, shipmates and farmers, the ‘common men’, forgotten by history, whose insights and skills made a huge impact on the work and thinking of Darwin, into Joseph Gardiner," writes Meek in his programme note. Christopher Brougham embodies all facets of this character with growing strength as he evolves from menial assistant to valued partner in the enterprise, willing to take a stand for his status.

Eddie Campbell brings a stolid conservatism to John Roberts, Darwin’s God-fearing friend, mentor and publishing agent, loved and valued by both Emma and Charles. But when his belief in the very origin of his being is brought into question, his inability to adapt manifests the lethal truth of evolutionary theory.

Darwin’s young followers, the next generation ready and able to ride the wave caused by Darwin and ‘Gardiner’, are represented by Alfred Thomas. Gareth Williams perfectly captures his brightness, enthusiasm and socially conditioned immaturity, completing an excellent cast in an exciting production. 

Strident strings (of the Kronos Quartet, I think) open each act and their even harsher tones signify the "infernal condition" that collapses Darwin himself, from time to time. Softer tones emerge elsewhere but have yet to be well integrated into the action.

If you have any fear that this subject matter is ‘above’ you, discard them. While the scientifically-minded will revel in much of the detail, the only qualification anyone needs to find Collapsing Creating relevant, intriguing and totally compelling on many levels, is to be human.

Evolutionary scientists and ‘intelligent design’ creationists are especially encouraged to comment on this play and production.

For information on the DARWIN LECTURE SERIES, each Saturday in November, 6pm at Downstage, click on the play title above and scroll down.
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Arthur Meek’s solo performance in last year’s On The Conditions and Possibilities of Helen Clark Taking Me as Her Young Lover (which he co-wrote with co-producer Geoff Pinfield) won him the Downstage Theatre Award for the Most Promising Newcomer of the Year at the Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards (where the show was also nominated for Production of the Year). The comedy music ensemble The Lonesome Buckwhips, of which he is part, was nominated for a Billy T Award. His theatre writing credits include Yolk, for Young & Hungry 08, The Cottage (2006).
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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