×

The Dark Earth and the Light Sky

Telling the puzzling story of doomed poet Edward Thomas who died in World War One, playwright Nick Dear abandons constricting chronology and uses multiple and contradictory narrators.

With:
Edward Thomas -- Pip Carter
Helen Thomas -- Hattie Morahan
Robert Frost -- Shaun Dooley
Eleanor Farjeon -- Pandora Colin
Philip Thomas -- Ifan Huw Dafydd
Boot, Major Lushington -- Dan Poole

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?

Popular on Variety

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.

The Dark Earth and the Light Sky

Almeida Theater, London; 321 seats; £32 $51 top

Production: An Almeida Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Nick Dear. Directed by Richard Eyre.

Creative: Sets and costumes, Bob Crowley; lighting, Peter Mumford; sound, John Leonard; production stage manager, Laura Draper. Opened, reviewed Nov. 15, 2012. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MINS.

Cast: Edward Thomas -- Pip Carter
Helen Thomas -- Hattie Morahan
Robert Frost -- Shaun Dooley
Eleanor Farjeon -- Pandora Colin
Philip Thomas -- Ifan Huw Dafydd
Boot, Major Lushington -- Dan Poole

More Legit

  • The Prince of Egypt review

    'The Prince of Egypt': Theater Review

    In “The Prince of Egypt,” a swords-and-sandals epic minus the swords, no one speaks, they declaim; no one questions, they implore to the heavens. In a musical re-telling of the Exodus story that is bigger on plagues than on developed characterization, subtlety was always going to be in short supply. But did everything have to [...]

  • Katori Hall

    Listen: Katori Hall's 'Quiet Revolution'

    Playwright Katori Hall’s latest, “The Hot Wing King,” centers on a group of black gay men — a community so rarely depicted onstage in the theater that she can’t think of another example. Listen to this week’s “Stagecraft” podcast below: Which means there’s real power just to see them represented. “Because there aren’t a ton of images [...]

  • Cirque Du Soleil Volta

    Volta: Cirque Du Soleil’s Latest Blends Themes of Self-Discovery with Street Sports

    Blending themes of loneliness, isolation and self-discovery with the magnetic culture of street sports, Cirque du Soleil’s latest iteration, “Volta,” is an eye-popping and psychically soothing spiritual journey experienced through a prism of jaw-dropping acrobatics and aerodynamics that leave one gasping for breath. The Montreal-based entertainment company has produced a steady string of awe-inspiring shows [...]

  • Cambodian Rock Band review

    'Cambodian Rock Band': Theater Review

    Is there anything less politically threatening than a rock band jamming to its own vibrant music? Tell that to the Khmer Rouge, which descended on Cambodia in 1975 and killed off some three million people, including many musicians. In Lauren Yee’s play “Cambodian Rock Band,” the doomed, fictional band Cyclo is represented by actor-musicians with [...]

  • Protesters demonstrate at the Broadway opening

    'West Side Story' Broadway Opening Night Sparks Protests

    Roughly 100 protestors gathered outside the Broadway premiere of “West Side Story” on Thursday night, carrying placards and chanting in unison to demand the removal of cast member Amar Ramasar. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Ramasar has got to go,” they cried while holding signs that read “Keep predators off the stage,” “Sexual predators shouldn’t get [...]

  • West Side Story review

    'West Side Story': Theater Review

    Whittled down to one hour and forty-five minutes, “West Side Story” – with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by Jerome Robbins — has grown exceedingly dark and mislaid some of its moving parts in the new Broadway revival from edgy Belgian director Ivo Van Hove. (Can [...]

  • The Inheritance review

    'The Inheritance' Closing in March After Box Office Struggles

    “The Inheritance,” a sprawling and ambitious epic that grappled with the legacy of the AIDS epidemic, will close on March 15. The two-part play has struggled mightily at the box office despite receiving strong reviews. Last week, it grossed $345,984, or 52% of its capacity, a dispiriting number for a show that was reported to [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content