At one point in Dark Glory, Steve Gooch's new play about the early life of Tennyson, the poet's sister Emmie challenges him with the question, "Who was it who said, `There lives more faith in honest doubt'?" Tennyson can have no doubts, honest or otherwise, about the answer: "I did," he correctly replies. It's rather as though, in a play about Einstein, someone were to wag an arch finger at the shock-haired genius and ask: "e = mc2, ring any bells, Alfie?"
Putting a famous life on stage is fraught with such pitfalls, hindsight giving a contrived or ridiculous look to situations that would have been quite unremarkable at the time. Dark Glory doesn't always avoid these snares. But then, in offering what feels more like a dramatised crash course on the Tennyson family than a play with fully shaped and articulated themes, it has to move at an indecorous lick over material that needs breathing space if it is not to come across as zanily melodramatic.
There is a broad architecture in the piece. In the first half, which ends with the death of Tennyson's platonically beloved friend Arthur Hallam (Julian Rhind-Tutt), the poet is stalked somewhat ludicrously by a personification of the family curse, a black-masked highwayman-like figure who represents "the black blood of the Tennysons". The cruel irony for Alfred, the play shows, is that whereas the family curse of mental illness passed smoothly from one generation to the next, the family money did not. (Tennyson's father, an off-stage figure here, was disinherited in favour of his younger brother.) In the second half of the play, which ends with the completion of In Memoriam, Tennyson's eulogy to his dead friend, the poet is this time haunted by Hallam's ghost, who also communicates with his bereaved fiancee, Tennyson's sister Emmie (forcefully played by Abigail Cruttenden), and the poet's future wife, Emily (Sharon Broday).
There's a novella called The Conjugal Angel, by A S Byatt, which examines, like the second half of Gooch's play, the parlous predicament of Emmie, who is given an allowance by Hallam's family after his death but not thought good enough for him when alive. It also, like the play, considers her understandably mixed feelings about the upstaging eulogy her brother erected to this lost love. But Byatt, by fixing the story at a particular time and in a particular setting, gives her themes a dramatic concentration missing in this play. Gooch goes for a brisk chronological canter through Tennyson's life pre-1850: it might have been wiser to choose a moment of crisis (a la Ibsen) on which the accumulated weight of the past could be seen to bear down.
Nicholas Gleaves makes an immensely engaging Tennyson, all the more so for not disguising the undignified aspects of this melancholic procrastinator. And it's a moving moment when the ghost of Hallam is finally exorcised and covered in a shroud. Patrick Sandford's well-acted production is hampered by the decision to stage virtually everything as if it took place alfresco. It's true there were seven sons and four daughters in the Tennyson family: all the same, you wonder whether the resulting taste for the outdoors would have been quite so extreme.
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