Thursday, 22 November 2012

The Dark Earth and the Light Sky - review

Written by: Stanley Eldridge (@StanleyEldridge)

Almeida Theatre, London

Plays about writers, bio-plays, tend to stray from balanced pieces of drama into opulent devices of worship very quickly. There’s certain romanticism in using the same form, the same pen as one’s hero might have used to extol their glorious life. The Dark Earth and the Light Sky proves to be a thoroughly interesting piece, precisely because it sidesteps any sickly bio-play trap. Nick Dear has produced an engaging piece about the poet Edward Thomas, whose work spanned the years surrounding World War One, in which Thomas fought and died.

Photo: Nobby Clark
Dear and Richard Eyre, whose direction of what could have been a very boring and insular subject, have succeeded in producing a play which matches the gilded beauty of Thomas’ poetry. Thomas’ social incompatibility and depression are made no secret of, instead barbing the play with moments of delicious awkwardness between Pip Carter’s Thomas and his wife Hattie Morahan’s Helen. Dear and Eyre treat all things page-bound and literary as the heroic driving force however; Patriotic swells, twinkling starlight and passionate speeches are made, continuously declaring the importance, the nobility but more importantly sacrifice in a poet’s life. Helen, the children, Thomas’ other life, his life away from ‘‘willows, willow-herb, and grass’’ is shunned away, further complicating Thomas’ intriguing personality and presenting our hero, the man whose life we’ve come to see as well, a bit of a b***ard.

Photo: Nobby Clark
Shaun Dooley’s Robert Frost provides us with Thomas’ mentor, an American figure; more in touch with his rationality, Frost somehow seems less heroic than Thomas. Our hero’s return from enlisting in the Royal Garrison Artillery elicits a heart wrenching reaction from his wife. A woman torn apart by a husband who loves then hates, stays then walks produces a most palpable force in Helen. Morahan’s performance gives the show an anchor and moral propellant. Without Morahan’s gossipy narration and soliloquizing, Thomas becomes little more than a selfish romantic struggling for a cause. But Dear, by building the play around Helen’s more conventional romantic notions of life in Clapham Common, just after marriage, and her trials in keeping hold of this and Edward, displays both the glory and the mess in a poet’s life.

Dear’s play leaves us, having presented both the personal and public images of Thomas, to make up our own minds. From his cowardice before a gamekeeper and his prickly English bouts of anti-social behaviour, to his loving but rare affections for Helen, Pip Carter plays Thomas with an endearing indifference. The quarrels with his father, Ifan Huw Dafydd are amusingly dark, and perhaps say more about Thomas’ depression than any other moment. Dooley and Pandora Colin as Thomas’ literary confidants Frost and Eleanor Farjeon are both superb. However, Hattie Morahan’s character Helen not only carries the action, constantly farming or washing or lifting or caring or loving, but so does the actress. Morahan’s emotional depth electrifies the play with a beating heart necessary to tell the tale of one of England’s finest poets.

Photo: Nobby Clark
This production runs until 12 January 2013. 

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