Particularly when hubris hovers in the wings. Stephen Lowe's new play - subtitled The Marriage of Heaven and Hell - focuses on the alchemist John Dee (William Hoyland) and his visionary Edward Kelly (Antony Byrne), struggling with supernatural inspiration and seances to achieve the transformation of base metals into gold, and the parallel transformation into a state of divine consciousness. Kelly's visions lead them to exchange wives in a Faustian pact which - their divine apparitions assure them - will reveal all. The ensuing pregnancies, lack of transcendental inspiration, and revelation that Kelly may have misrepresented his visions to satisfy his longings for Mrs Dee, lead the foursome into a round of violent reproaches, emotional bloodletting and religious frenzy.
The programme notes suggest that John Dee was the model for Prospero. It was, perhaps, ill-advised of the director, John Church, to emphasise this link by furnishing William Hoyland with a beard and costume which cannot help but remind the viewer of Gielgud in Greenaway's Prospero's Books, since it sets the writer, Stephen Lowe, in direct competition with Shakespeare. At the same time, this story of supernatural visions abused for earthy purposes in an atmosphere of suppurating religiosity sets Lowe head to head with Arthur Miller. Virtually any playwright would emerge bloodied and bruised from a comparison with these two heavyweights.
It is a shame that Lowe has not been far braver, and seized on the abundant potential for rich symbolism, deep-veined metaphor and mystic drama that the subject matter proffers. It is a tragedy that he has hidden the wealth of research on which he has clearly spent so much time and effort behind a rather hackneyed story of infidelity, lust and jealousy, wasting such a rich canvas and palette to produce a play about base emotions, not base metals, which could be set almost anywhere and anywhen. In historical terms, Lowe has extracted from a period of massive social change a timeless and fairly pedestrian tale of one man's desire for another man's wife, and the consequences that flow from it.
This might not be quite such a disappointment if the play were a success within its own frame of reference. Yet the characters lack any depth beyond their formalised roles as pawns in the narrative. The dialogue is batted around in a leisurely game of verbal mixed doubles, and it is depressing that a man of Lowe's writing pedigree - which covers everything from the Royal Court to Coronation Street - should create characters who are so flimsy, and full of incomprehensible and implausible contradictions. One minute, a character is chiding another's religious delusions and self- justifications; yet two speeches later the previously analytical cynic has swept off on a wave of Messianic madness, while the pious believer delivers a deflating commentary.
The play also fails to engender the sense of cultist hothouse religious fervour in which assertions of demonic possession, holy visions and claims that an expected child will be the Messiah could flourish and be treated with anything like the seriousness assigned to them in the script.
The Alchemical Wedding promises much. The programme notes are fascinating, and Stuart David Nunn's set - a sweeping, Conran-esque post-modern take on the black and white rake of commedia dell'arte - is stunning. But the play itself is an unhappy conjunction of The Crucible and a second-rate drawing-room drama about the consequences of wife-swapping. Now that truly is a marriage of heaven and hell.
Runs until 16 May (box office: 01722-320333)Reuse content