Real lives rarely have a genuinely theatrical shape, which is one reason why the term “biographical drama” tends to be oxymoronic. In “The Dark Earth and the Light Sky,” playwright Nick Dear aims to solve that problem. Telling the puzzling story of doomed poet Edward Thomas who died in World War One, he abandons constricting chronology and uses multiple and contradictory narrators. Although the attempt is only partially successful, the evening glows with authenticity thanks to the expressive authority of Richard Eyre’s elegiac production.
The play’s opening line — “The question everyone asks is, why?” — is the central question in any examination of Thomas. Why did a 39-year-old, overly sensitive man who passionately loved the English countryside, found working almost impossible and lived with a wife and three children, decide to enlist and, once there, abandon a safe backroom post to go to certain death on the front line?
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For Dear, it’s not just the question but the questioner that’s important. That opening line is spoken by Thomas’s widow Helen (Hattie Morahan) who, initially, is in charge of narration. But once the necessary background is out of the way — overly expository scene with disapproving father, background to the marriage, etc. — the texture begins to thicken.
Thomas’s life is turned around in 1913 by meeting Robert Frost (Shaun Dooley), the U.S. poet with whom he swiftly establishes a firm if increasingly disputatious friendship. The latter encourages Thomas to give up writing non-fiction and reviews and to become a poet. The other key figure is Eleanor Farjeon (Pandora Colin,) a spinsterish children’s writer helplessly and hopelessly in love with Thomas. And, following Thomas’s death (which climaxes the first act), the contrasting memories and perspectives of all three begin to play against one another.
In a story as sad as Thomas’s it would have been easy to soften the edges of so haunted and abrasive a character. Pip Carter doesn’t stint on presenting Thomas’s selfishness, but the ruthless lack of sentimentality in his abrupt yet starkly revealing performance allows audiences to sense that the pain he causes is generated by pain he feels.
Bob Crowley’s earth-covered stage and the birdsong of John Leonard’s soundscape are almost the only naturalistic elements of the non-literal but immensely evocative design. Peter Mumford’s high-contrast lighting switches between creating depth and distance in a bewitchingly suggestive landscape, and etching bodies out of darkness, using bold color to give faces the patina of nostalgia.
Lanky and self-assured Carter conveys an intensity of feeling that make him completely convincing as the quietly revolutionary writer that Thomas was. He’s matched by Morahan, whose fervor makes her partial view appear central to his history.
Ironically, there’s a safety to the construction that undermines the play. The argument over whose story it is feels too diffuse, and explanatory scenes over conflicting views of “the official version” of Thomas’ story collectively don’t achieve their intended impact.
Audiences unwilling to be seduced by a restrained old-fashioned passion for words and, by extension, the calmly English values enshrined in Thomas’ poetry, will find little to divert them. But those with a taste for things literary are unlikely to see a finer production than Eyre’s.