In the end it was the smell that did it. I admit it, it’s an unusual thing to praise a stage production for but it’s the first thing you notice entering the Almeida auditorium: the smell of damp earth. And for someone like me, who worries that poetic might be just another word for vague and anaemic, it was the perfect calling card. The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, written by Nick Dear and directed with extreme assurance by Richard Eyre, might be about words and art and poetry but it’s the smells and sounds that take centre stage.
The second thing that makes an impression is the space: the whole of the Almeida stage is open and uncluttered save for some balls of hay and the dark damp earth. All scenes, in people’s living rooms or the streets of London, take place upon dark soil. A few weeks back, I complained that the sand on the Donmar stage made Berenice look uncertain. Here the effect is exactly the opposite: everything is grounded, even Edward Thomas’ ghosts or flights of fancy.
The production is blessed with cracking performances: I first noticed Pip Carter in David Hare’s Gethsemane at the National, and looking at his theatre CV I have seen almost everything he has done. He rarely plays the lead which is a crime. His Edward Thomas is not so much tortured but an alien to all the things he loves. His performance is brittle and tender, spare and complex, captivating and otherworldly. Hattie Morahan follows her triumph in A Doll’s House with her performance as Helen Thomas, a woman who finds fulfilment in an unusual and difficult love. Eyes open, literally and metaphorically, she understands everything, the past and the future. It’s an irresistible performance. Shaun Dooley, all american bravado, finds the right balance between what his Robert Frost feels and what he presents as feeling. Truth, lies and evasions become a heady mix.
The story moves back and forth and for anyone who doesn’t know the details it plays like a mystery. Occasionally, direct narration to the audience outstays its welcome and can feel like an easy solution, but it’s an easy fault to forgive. Direction and pace are sure footed and slightly hypnotic. It’s a production to savour and no one wants to rush that. Again we come back to the senses: smells and birdsong and words like sounds and bombs and singing. The play could have been called The Damp Earth and the Light Sky. And I wouldn’t have minded at all.