Charting John Donne’s troubled journey from minor songwriter to grandstanding preacher, Into Thy Hands is a richly researched portrait of a complicated character: womaniser and proto-feminist, literary giant and court entertainer, a devout Christian and a violent opponent of the prevailing Puritan order, a radical free thinker and a bittersweet bundle of failure and compromise.
It also offers a rigorous interrogation of the central thesis behind much of Donne’s life, work and controversy: that sexual love is not only God’s greatest gift, but is in itself a form of worship.
If that all sounds a bit academic, well, it is. This new work from writer-director Jonathan Holmes often feels too much a product of his academic interests, with some of its the most heartbreaking drama overshadowed by lengthy theological and literary debate. It’s undoubtedly heavyweight, but it’s also heavy going. A patchy ensemble (with Jess Murphy the strongest of the bunch as Donne’s wife) and a fairly static staging do little to alleviate the philosophising.
But the production is rescued by a powerhouse performance by stage veteran Zubin Varla, his towering presence a dominating force even when sat quietly in the upstage corner he inhabits during most of the other character’s scenes. It’s a real treat, and I imagine Varla’s theological sermonising is as close as we might ever get to experiencing the man himself in impressive full flow.
For Varla alone, Into Thy Hands is well worth a visit. And for all that it is overlong and over-laboured, its central ideas linger. Clumsy yet powerful, indulgent yet unquestionably important, there’s a streak of real passion running through the play which is far more exciting than a work of better craft but lesser substance.
It its also a great showcase of Wilton’s Music Hall at its inspiring best. Designer Lucy Wilkinson’s simple but effective set works in great sympathy to the building, and the play’s historical weight is perfectly located in a vital piece of London’s architectural history. With the recent news that the financial survival of Wilton’s is in doubt, Into Thy Hands makes a powerful case for the building’s value in our cultural landscape.