Into Thy Hands begins with a speech about theatre and decay – very apt, considering that the future of the enchantingly distressed Wilton’s Music Hall is on shaky grounds after a major National Lottery grant recently was rejected.
This new play by Jericho House’s artistic director Jonathan Holmes (who also directs) illuminates the changing world of the early seventeenth century, full of a religious and scientific upheaval, through the eyes of John Donne, a maverick figure in Renaissance literature and religion. Whilst the play is packed with complex theological ideas that could seem rather remote, it’s personable, touching, and served with a generous amount of eroticism.
John and Ann Donne’s marriage ought to be counted amongst history’s great love stories; indeed, it is Ann who speaks out against the clergy on her husband’s behalf. In 1611, the Donnes and their growing brood of children are exiled in two rooms in a “Croydon craphole” as a result of their mixed marriage (his Catholicism and her Protestant background), scraping a meagre living by performing various favours for members of the court. The only escape route is an ecclesiastical position (which would presumably mean converting to Anglicanism), a transition that is fraught with self-doubt.
Donne’s belief in a more fluid and sensual approach towards scripture, in contrast to the austere Calvinism of court (yet this is also a place in where noblewomen perform in masques with their breasts exposed), seems remarkably modern. Holmes takes a certain amount of creative license with history, presenting an overtly camp King James I (a scene-stealing cameo from Bob Cryer) and a Sapphic Lady Russell, but despite the play’s pro-Donne stance, Nicholas Rowe’s Lancelot Andrewes (the foremost cleric of the day) is presented with due gravitas and dignity.
Zubin Varla’s performance as Donne, though a touch overwrought, effectively conveys the torment of a man without a steady outlet for his extraordinary gifts. Jess Murphy’s Ann (remarkably nubile considering her constant state of pregnancy) reveals herself to be a worthy match to her husband’s intellect with her insight. Helen Masters is warm and spiky as Lady Magdalene Herbert, the Donnes’ loyal friend and Stephanie Russell as Donne’s patroness Lucy Russell, an aging beauty at twenty-nine, offers an intriguing glimpse of sexual frustration and self-denial.
Holmes fully embraces the way in which Wilton’s, with its arched roof, balconies and panelling, is somewhat reminiscent of a bohemian church, and Filippo de Capitani’s wondrous lighting creates the most lovely chiaroscuro effects, as if the auditorium really is filled with candlelight. Lucy Wilkinson’s design, with painted screens and a painted silk backdrop (stripped away to mark Donne’s conversion to the visually plainer Anglicanism) and a cosmos of planets overhead, characterises the world of the play and an unknown existence beyond.
As Donne learns, much of earthly survival depends having enough money to live on. I hope that Wilton’s will be saved with all the good faith in the world, but its endurance ultimately depends on hard cash from rich donors. If decay and ruin really do unite us all, it would be an absolute tragedy if this exquisite building that inspires so much wonder and delight was to vanish.
Into Thy Hands plays at Wilton’s Music Hall until July 2nd. For more information and tickets, please click here.