There are some actors who can reinvent themselves entirely for each new role, to the point of unrecognisability. For me Hattie Morahan belongs to this elite group; I have admired her work since her student days yet still would not know her if she were to stop me in the street. In Nick Dear’s latest play she peers through spectacles, hair braided tightly and unflatteringly around her, as Helen, the mercurial wife of the writer and poet Edward Thomas. In The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, Dear deals with the Thomases’ time in the village of Dymock, Gloucestershire, with Robert Frost. This was the period of Edward’s genesis as a poet under Frost’s encouragement, and also of his decision to enlist to fight in the newly broken out first world war. (He was killed in France in 1917.)
There is little to go on. Thomas himself was “prickly” (Frost’s word) and withdrawn; today we would say he had intimacy issues. Neither he nor the writer Eleanor Farjeon ever acknowledged their attraction to each other, while his marriage to Helen foundered. Monologues of reminiscence from Helen, Frost and Farjeon are intercut with dramatic scenes. These include a brace of confrontations between Thomas and his dogmatically conservative Welsh father; if this relationship was the root of the poet’s personal problems, I am afraid that the tyranny-by-numbers of these scenes casts little light. (It is a joy, though, to hear Ifan Huw Dafydd as Philip Thomas give a wonderful Cambrian pronunciation to words such as “iwniform”.)
Pip Carter is well suited to the restrained characterisation of Thomas, as well as bearing an appreciable likeness to him. Shaun Dooley has less to work with as Frost, and Pandora Colin is almost a cartoon librarian as Farjeon. The dynamism is predominantly, if not almost entirely, in Morahan’s hands as Helen: her sexual and political passion, rage, grief and, later still, general mental brittleness. This imbalance is no fault of Richard Eyre’s production, nor perhaps of Dear’s writing: it seems to inhere in the historical characters. Eyre does not attempt artificial animation, letting them play out their relationships naturally on Bob Crowley’s gentle earthwork of a set (which also provides a sudden coup de théâtre). This is nearly a quietly compelling low-key biographical drama, but for the lingering suspicion that the actuality was more low-key still.