The Theatreguide.London Review
Dark Earth And The Light Sky
Almeida Theatre Winter 2012-2013
Edward Thomas (1878-1917) was a great poet. We know that because in Nick Dear's new play Thomas's wife Helen repeatedly addresses the audience directly to tell us so.
Eleanor Farjeon, who had a chaste crush on Thomas that lasted long after his death, also tells us so several times. And no less an authority than American poet Robert Frost also faces forward to tell us this repeatedly.
So it must be so, even though nothing else in the play – until the final seconds, when Thomas returns from the grave to recite one of his poems – gives us any indication of any particular poetic ability or sensibility in the man.
Perhaps if you come to the play already convinced that Thomas was a great poet, you might find it interesting to be told that he also was quite beastly to his wife, rude to his friends and a disappointment to his father, that he had no use for his children, was a physical coward with a paradoxical death wish, and generally liked nothing much in life except taking long solitary walks in the countryside.
But you still wouldn't find it particularly dramatic. Nick Dear is a skilled and experienced playwright, so we must assume that he deliberately makes what looks like the beginner's error of telling us everything and showing us almost nothing.
Helen, Eleanor and Robert each spend far more time talking to the audience than to each other, narrating events we don't see and making judgements and interpretations we don't get the opportunity to make for ourselves.
In between, the acted-out scenes are more about Thomas the odd and generally unpleasant man than Thomas the poet, and the nearest thing to a central question in the play is not about the nature or quality of his talent, but why the nearly-forty-year-old Thomas impulsively enlisted in the army in 1915 and then, although he had a useful headquarters position, insisted on transferring to the front lines, where he was killed in 1917. (Dear's answer is that it had something to do with love of country, something to do with proving his manliness, and something to do with a death wish.)
Director Richard Eyre and his cast do their best to make this narrative and evaluative essay with occasional illustrations more of an actual play than it is, with Hattie Morahan as Helen bringing so much life to her monologues that her character becomes far more real and interesting than any of the others, and you half-wish they were secondary figures in a play about her.