My country is not mine unless I want to protect it.
Edward Thomas was killed at the battle of Arras in 1917. In the two years leading up to this point he wrote 143 poems, an extraordinary burst of creativity which has been attributed to his intense friendship with the American poet Robert Frost in the years 1913-15. In his new play, Nick Dear presents a picture of this troubled, complicated man through his relationships with four others: his father, his wife, Frost and the children’s author Eleanor Farjeon.
Thomas’ father prides himself on being a “lynchpin of the Battersea Ethical Society” and can’t understand why Edward resigns his civil service job to eke out a living in the country writing book reviews. In the two confrontational scenes between Thomas senior and his son, his abiding memory is of young Edward refusing to win a school walking race (“everything about you was too good to last”). But I hope Dear does not believe that Thomas’ troubled, unsympathetic character can simply be attributed to an overbearing bully of a father.
To his credit, Dear does not try to make Thomas a likeable character – in his own words he is “inclined to misery” – and we often wonder why he inspired such love and close friendship in those near him. He treats his free-spirited wife, Helen, with contempt, abandoning her to go off on long walks in the company of Frost and appears to take no interest in his children, even holding a gun in one hand and his baby daughter in the other as he contemplates suicide.
Pip Carter is a revelation as Thomas, one moment cruel and harsh and the next haunted, and bowed by awkwardness, insecurity and fear. Hattie Morahan, too, gives a dazzlingly energetic performance as Helen, perfectly capturing her passion and sensuality, and later her intense grief at her husband’s untimely passing.
Indeed, it is the women who are the emotional core of this play, and Pandora Colin’s virginal Eleanor, mystified by men and change, is a touching counterpoint to Morahan’s vivd Helen. There is a beautiful scene between these two women where they stand side-by-side as Helen is about to open the box of her husband’s belongings that has been sent back from the front: they are silent for a long time before Helen can bring herself to do so, and that silence is the most moving moment of the evening.
Where the play fails to deliver is in the relationship between Thomas and Frost. Richard Eyre, the director, and Bob Crowley, the designer, have done a marvellous job recreating the English countryside (complete with real earth) through which Thomas and Frost would tramp for hours, surrounded by birdsong, discussing poetry and how one “becomes” a poet. Shaun Dooley is one-dimensional as Frost, a rather crude, vigorous American, and this production does not enable us to understand what led to the development of such a strong and enduring friendship between the two men.
Dear also comes dangerously close to saying that all Thomas needed to become a poet was Frost’s friendship and encouragement, and there is little reference to Thomas’ writing at all, whether prose or poetry. But this is theatre, and we can’t expect it to cover everything. What The Dark Earth and the Light Sky is is a brilliant portrayal of a complex man with many faults, and we have to hope that it will encourage those who saw it to read more about Thomas, and, of course, to read his poems.