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June 6, 2011 6:34 pm

Into Thy Hands, Wilton’s Music Hall, London

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Into Thy Hands at Wilton's Music Hall

Zubin Varla gives a vivid central performance as the poet torn between his principles and his love for wife and children

Jonathan Holmes’s new play about the poet John Donne certainly has an atmospheric setting. The production (directed by Holmes for Jericho House theatre company) fills Wilton’s with incense and uses moody lighting to show off this unique and lovely old music hall, with its elegant barley-twist columns and carved balconies. It reminds us what will be lost if the hall closes (a bid for Heritage Lottery funding was rejected). It also suits a play that grapples with the intertwining of the spiritual and the physical.

Holmes focuses on one year in Donne’s life: 1611, the year the King James Bible was completed. This, the tensions in England – and in Donne’s life – between Protestantism and Catholicism (Donne, from a Catholic family, was eventually ordained into the Church of England and became Dean of St Paul’s) and the innovations in science and astronomy make for a play ripe with debate.

Donne, having eloped with Ann More (Jess Murphy), is in disgrace and struggling to provide for his growing family. He could help himself by joining join the church, but is reluctant, partly because he sees no contradiction between spiritual devotion and the physical act of love. The plays explores both ecstasy and fidelity in the physical, spiritual and linguistic spheres. In one particularly gripping and funny scene Holmes imagines the clergymen Lancelot Andrewes and John Layfield struggling to translate the Song of Songs and maintain decency.

Into Thy Hands is meaty intellectually but a bit too densely packed, and it tends to move from setpiece to setpiece. At one point Donne criticises his own work for having “too many jostling conceits”; one could apply the same criticism to the play itself. The science, in particular, feels shoehorned in, and the production overdoes the use of bare breasts to convey the innocence of earthly pleasures.

Zubin Varla gives a vivid central performance, however, as Donne, torn between his principles and his love for wife and children. Helen Masters is crisply intelligent as Lady Danvers, Stephen Fewell is particularly good as Layfield. Nicholas Rowe makes a nice, sternly upright Andrewes and has some great lines, such as: “This is no time for frivolity – it is Christmas.” 

 

www.wiltons.org.uk

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