The creation of the King James Bible, of which this year marks the 400th anniversary, is one thread of among many in Jonathan Holmes’ new play about the life of John Donne. This act of translation, a process of linguistic fixing with significant philosophic implications, is explored in the most memorable and intellectually exciting scene of a play that works both as a work of biography and as a broader portrait of the times.
Holmes probes the many contradictions of Donne’s character: here was a man who felt all things were fundamentally connected, whose love for God was consuming and sublime, but who railed against many of the prevalent ideas of worship; here was a man willing to risk prison to marry his beloved Ann More, but who was also not above taking other lovers. A free thinker, radical in his ideas, Donne would eventually bow to pressure to take Anglican orders, but not before his wife and several of his children would perish in poverty: Holmes’ play charts this transition.
For Donne, the physical and the spiritual were inextricably linked, one and the same, and the play’s sexual dimension reflects this. His relationship with his wife is shown to be joyous and erotic and intense; they revel in each other’s bodies and lay, limbs entwined, on the bed of their two-room ‘Croydon craphole.’ Later Donne argues passionately for the use of the language of sexual desire, specifically the word ‘ravish’, to articulate man’s need for God’s love.
Zubin Varla is fittingly intense and charismatic as Donne though there are some issues of clarity in his scenes of oration: the raw, near-febrile passion of the man comes across if not always the full thrust of his arguments. Jess Murphy is warm and patient as Ann, slowly realising, as her children begin to sicken, that love may not be enough, and Nicholas Rowe gives a suitably upright performance as the scholar and clergyman, Lancelot Andrews.
While Holmes, who also directs, presupposes a degree of knowledge about Donne, there is conversely, and particularly in some of the play’s early scenes, an excess of exposition. This is perhaps most overt when he has the characters discuss the wonderful possibilities of a magic tube (a telescope) from Venice, and the theological consequences of Kepler, Galileo and the ‘New Science.’ The turbulence of the time is further emphasised by the design: an orrery hangs above the stage, a canopy of planets, while the already atmospheric space at Wilton’s Music Hall, low-lit by Filippo de Capitani, the air laced with incense, has been made to feel church-like, a hallowed space; people’s voices drop to reverent whispers as they enter and take their seats.
If the play occasionally feels overly scholarly in tone, awkwardly paced and lacking a lightness of touch in the way it weaves Donne’s words through the text, it’s nonetheless a thematically rich and layered piece of writing that’s capable of humour and wit. The experience is enhanced some way by Lucy Wilkinson’s lavish costumes and the evocative setting, the innately atmospheric quality of Wilton’s, a unique venue now under threat.