Into Thy Hands

Jonathan Holmes
Jericho House Theatre Company
Wilton's Music Hall
(2011)

Set just four centuries ago, a few years after the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, Into Thy Hands is a bio piece about poet and preacher John Donne. Today we know him best as the writer of sexually charged love poetry and song lyrics for his composer contemporaries but in his lifetime he was famous for his sermons as a cleric at St Paul's. Holmes's new play, which he directs himself, embraces both aspects of Donne, presenting them not so much in conflict as part of the same faith. Donne sees sexual love as much god's gift as anything else, but his rigid clerical contemporaries are more concerned with such gifts as the pain of childbirth.

It is a time of ideological conflict. Copernicus and Galileo are presenting a new picture of the universe, condemned by Rome for their beliefs: Donne is translating Galileo into English, and a great circular Orrery above the stage reminds us of their astronomical discoveries. King James I & VI has ordered a new translation of the Bible: Donne is an advisor to one of the translators.

While clerics argue over finding English equivalents to Greek and Hebrew, court ladies worry about appearing bare-breasted in a masque by Inigo Jones (which is set against a design that shows man at the centre of the universe), and Donne hopes for reacceptance at court and ponders taking Anglican Holy Orders.

This is a play packed with arguments and ideas about love and duty between humanity and god, between husband and wife, friends, often obliquely but eloquently expressed. At its centre is a simple story line about Donne's struggle to survive, but this has little dramatic drive. Attention is held rather by the individual encounters and the theatricality with which they are presented.

It ranges from sermons to masque performance to a touching and totally untitillatory scene in which Donne and his wife are naked, their love-making halted by a child's cry, and a moment of lesbian exploration as a woman in love with Donne seeks to discover his wife's attractions.

It is lavishly dressed by Lucy Wilkinson, atmospherically lit by Filippo de Capitani (though it sometimes needed to be just a notch brighter) and strongly acted. Zubin Varla is a passionate and charismatic John Donne, Nichola Rowe makes ecclesiastic Lancelot Andrewes a cool intellectual and Stephanie Langton and Helen Masters elegantly play Donne's aristocratic lady admirers. Bob Cryer gives a delightful cameo as a coyly lecherous but clever King James, doubling it with Donne's friend Henry Wooton and Stephen Fewell's obsequious cleric is in total contrast to his Ferrabosco, a composer capitalising on his Italian background. What moved me most however, was the passionately felt performance of Jess Murphy as Anne Donne, a woman of spirit trapped in what Church and Society then saw as woman's place

Into Thy Hands is a very serious piece but it is laced with humour: the scene in which Andrewes and Layfield deliberate on how to render "Kiss me," and "Ravish me" into sanctified English especially amusing while making some important points about translation and the way religious texts are interpreted. Holmes makes John Donne suggest the line translates correctly as "Kiss me! Make me drunk with kisses! Fuck me! Thy body is better than wine." Theologians, both Jewish and Christian, suggest that The Song of Songs is an allegory of the love between God and his people but I found myself wishing Donne had left us a complete translation if our ancestors were really so plain spoken.

"Into Thy Hands" runs at Wilton's until 2nd July 2011

Wilton's Music Hall has just had its application for £2.25 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund turned down. It now needs to raise just under £3.8 million to make the building secure and safe. Without that its future is in serious jeopardy. You can find out more and read Wilton's response at www.wiltons.org.uk/wilton's-press-release.html

Reviewer: Howard Loxton