Anyone for Tennyson?

Article excerpt

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). …