When playwright Owen Sheers and director John Retallack last brought poetry to the front line the result was the sensational Pink Mist, that played Bristol Old Vic three times and went on two national tours and could play claim to be the most successful new play under Tom Morris’ watch. Unicorns, Almost plays at a much lower key, not only in the comparative stillness of the production when placed against the propulsiveness of Mist but also in the emotion, it evokes within its audience, its gentler tone refusing to burrow in and tear at the heart.
This may be reflective of the poet Keith Douglas, that this biographical work explores. His work was extrospective, discussing external impressions rather than inward emotions and his critics have accused him of bringing callowness to his poetry scribed in the barracks. That doesn’t come across in this 60-minute piece, but a certain coldness does. Douglas’ matter of fact approach to life and death doesn’t allow its audience to get within an arms reach. On the 75th anniversary of his death at Normandy, there is still a sense of a man hidden behind his words.
Sheers work tries to get closer to him. We see the poetic temperament of a man who constantly falls in love, discussing being waved off by his 16-year-old sweetheart or falling into lust with the Spanish/Italian Milena before finding himself spending his last days of leave wooing the literary secretary of TS Elliot. It’s a reflection of a young man whose flame burns briefly, not fully grown into the man of letters he would have likely become if his life hadn’t been cut tragically short at 24.
As expected, Sheers play is awash with beautifully heightened language. It would work wonders as an audio drama, its visuals almost distracting from allowing us to luxuriate in the form Sheers has produced for it. Some bits hit hard, as when Douglas states that his would-be publishers don’t understand that his first collection of poetry could also act as his lifetime work.
Dan Krikler, a Pink Mist alumni, embodies the all Oxford boy who scribbles away on the front line. Softly spoken and delivering the poetry with a good sense of its musicality- as Ben Pickersgill lighting darkens to a blueish hue-and possessing a resemblance to the real Douglas, Krikler manages to portray both the boyish nature of a young adventurer and the hardening nature of a man who has seen too much too soon. He brings his musical theatre background to the role’s physicality, his moments when he takes us onto the dancefloor as he woos is one of the highlights of the production.
A coda talks about a moment when ten years after the poet’s death his Mother goes into a bookshop to find all six copies of his book still on the shelf, unopened and untouched. Douglas states that he hoped his words would allow him to live on. Sheers play brings him back into consciousness. It may not be a piece that shakes you in the way of Pink Mist, but in bringing the words of Douglas to its audience, Sheers has proved a willing literary executor.
Unicorns, Almost plays at Bristol Old Vic until 7 September.