Review: How far can you take grumpiness in The Dark Earth and the Light Sky?
One Sunday morning I was at the screening of a Danish costume drama set in the 18th century in which the King was being quite nasty to his Queen for no apparent reason. About an hour into the film an elderly gentlemen among the small audience started shouting at the screen: 'Will you stop being so horrible to that women, she's done nothing to you'.
It was a surprising outburst and also quite amusing but I tell the story because about three quarters of the way through Nick Dear's play The Dark Earth and the Light Sky I felt like doing just that. First world war poet Edward Thomas (Pip Carter) whom the play is about may have been a talented writer - and you get flashes of it in the script - but he wasn't a very nice man.
His free-spirit, intelligent wife Helen (Hattie Morahan) doggedly supports and encourages him only to be rewarded with a barrage of insensitive remarks. He isn't even that nice to his friend, the American poet Robert Frost (Shaun Dooley) whom he spends a summer with.
Thomas starts the play having resigned from a job in the civil service he can't see the point of, supporting his family by writing book reviews but creatively he suffers from writer's block. It is only in meeting Frost and spending hours in his company, walking, observing and documenting the countryside he loves that, with encouragement, he finds his voice once again.
He's not a happy person and early on confesses to having had suicidal thoughts only the beauty of the spot he'd chosen preventing him. However, his lack of self-worth makes him prickly, sharp, critical and highly-insensitive. But there is only so far empathy for a tortured genius or troubled soul can stretch.
When he is saying goodbye to his wife before going off to war, having decided seemingly on a whim he admits he hasn't been a good husband. Helen replies that she doesn't love him for the good but for the bad. The problem for me is the love wasn't quite so blind, I didn't see enough of the good Thomas to really understand why his friends and family not only stayed around but seemed totally enthralled by him.
This is a very good production in many senses. I can't fault the performances, the soundtrack of the countryside was extremely evocative and there were some interesting debates about language but I just didn't care for the central character. I was rooting for Helen and Thomas' friend Eleanor (Pandora Collin) for a while but eventually I couldn't be as forgiving towards the man who seemed to continually rebuff their love and friendship. Indeed there patient nature seemed so incongruous to the behaviour of the man towards which it was aimed I was left baffled.
I think The Dark Earth and Light Sky is one of those plays that divides. I know @polyg really liked it and it may even feature in her top 10 of the year (read her review here) but for me an unlikeable protagonist is only going to go so far.
The Dark Earth and Light Sky runs at the Almeida Theatre until January 12, 2013.
Ought To Be Clowns has written a rather splendid review in verse which you can read here.
Another easy one, Mr W was in ...some trace of her with Hattie.