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The Dark Earth And The Light Sky – Almeida Theatre, London

Writer: Nick Dear

Director: Richard Eyre

Reviewer: Jonathan Baz


The poet Edward Thomas led a full, if melancholy life, before enlisting to serve in the First World War and being killed in an explosion at Arras in 1917 at the age of 39.

Nick Dear’s play charts Thomas’ life from his younger days and meeting Helen, whom he was to marry, and pays particular attention to his relationship with the much lauded American poet Robert Frost, as their paths crossed shortly before the outbreak of war. Thomas also enjoyed an arguably unhealthy but nonetheless strictly platonic friendship with the 20th century writer Eleanor Farjeon, adding a complexity further deepened by Helen’s ensuing jealousy, which forms another strand of Dear’s writing.

While the play’s canvas is certainly broad, it fails to be as effective as Dear would surely have intended, only occasionally presenting a moving depiction of the human condition. Thomas, sensitively played by Pip Carter, wrote of rural landscapes and as the programme acknowledges, often with a metaphysical reach that embraced the natural world around him. He was a man enchanted by birdsong and nature. To then attempt to recreate and import his beautiful world onto a theatre’s stage, albeit one sprinkled with genuine earth but nonetheless still within the intrinsically artificial environment of the Almeida auditorium and then pepper it with recorded sound effects and a starlit backcloth, seems to abuse all that was natural that inspired this wonderful poet. Dear has also reduced too much of the action of Thomas’ life to caricature, though Ifan Huw Dafydd relishes his rôle as Phillip, Edward’s father. Shaun Dooley as Frost is a stiltedly arrogant American, and when late in act two he relates the familial tragedies that have befallen him, it seems a strangely perfunctory inventory of death and illness.

The audience learn of Thomas’ death firstly in an act one monologue from Farjeon, touchingly performed by Pandora Colin and then after the interval, complete with sound effects and pyro, we have to witness the poet’s actual demise on stage. Dear’s re-visiting of this death is unnecessary and rarely has a stage reference to The Great War been as unmoving as this play’s. One jumps at the explosion, but does not weep at the loss. R C Sherriff’s Journey’s End achieved so much more with much less stagecraft.

While the work’s intentions are noble, as a drama it is flawed. Richard Eyre has immense wisdom and creative talent and with further development, this tale could deserve a cinematic treatment. Eyre has excellent form behind the camera, and for him to capture England’s Hampshire and Gloucestershire and New England’s Franconia on film, would give Dear’s writing and Thomas’ verse the stage they so richly deserve.

Photo: Alastair Muir

Runs until 12 January 2013

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