Like Nick Dear’s last play, the National Theatre production of Frankenstein, The Dark Earth And The Light Sky features a man haunted by an unnerving, unseen presence, a man who is a constant disappointment to his creator, a man struggling with the concept of love, and the ever-looming shadow of horror and death.
But this is no dark concoction of Gothic fiction, this is a tale of poets based in reality.
Pip Carter leads the cast as British war poet Edward Thomas, a man who, on the Almeida stage, is strong of jaw but weak of humanity. A jobbing writer, he loathes himself for not being as good as those poets he reviews. He has little time for his family and less for his wife – goodness knows how he managed to have children – preferring instead solitary walks through the British countryside that far more easily piques his emotions.
That is until he meets US poet Robert Frost, a writer he holds in the highest esteem and who, when their friendship is kindled, inspires Thomas to make more of himself.
It is hard to sympathise with a central character seemingly intent on sucking the life out of a vivacious wife – Hattie Morahan following up a memorable performance in A Doll’s House, to which she will return in the Spring, with a similarly energised, edge-teetering turn at the Almeida – but as Dear slowly reveals more about the troubled poet the reasons for Thomas’ actions come into focus.
This is a man consumed with self-doubt who, if the sometime sadness in Carter’s eyes is to be believed, wishes life was different. Brow beaten by an unrepentant father and in thrall to an imagined, spectral Other Man, he thrives on nostalgia for life as it was, escapes into books and hides from reality.
Shaun Dooley’s Frost, by contrast, strides around with arms bulging from rolled up sleeves, ready for action, and talks of farming with a voice full of New Hampshire gravel. Their stark differences should serve as a road block to friendship, yet it becomes the pinnacle of platonic love, throwing Thomas’ marriage into contrast.
Similarly, despite struggling with humanity, Thomas draws devotion from Pandora Colin’s voley Eleanor Farjeon, who dotes on him like a teenage girl eager for any attention.
Dear’s play is based on fact, though even if it weren’t, it would not be difficult to see where it was heading. Unlike the rural towns Thomas loves, this is well signposted. But as Thomas’ character is slowly examined and unravelled, this is a play that, like Thomas’ country walks, is more interested in taking in the scenery than reaching a destination.