BBC Radio 4, 16 April 2013
The young John Donne (Conrad Nelson)
appears to have it all - a good post at Queen Elizabeth I's court as Chief Secretary to the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal,
Thomas Egerton (Malcolm Raeburn), complemented by a life of excess during his leisure time in the fleshpots of the City of
London, south of the River Thames. Any spare time that he can find is devoted to writing erotic poems that were eventually
published in the Songs and Sonets.
However Donne's life begins to fall apart. Egerton experiences a personal tragedy that
impacts significantly on his secretary's life, while Donne falls in love with Egerton's niece Ann More (Natalie Grady) - an
experience he finds very difficult to come to terms with. He can no longer enjoy one-night stands but instead has to
make a lifelong commitment to one women, even if, by doing so, he risks his professional future.
Donne's mental agonies have
a significant impact on his poetry: whereas earlier works such as "The Sonne Rising" could be seen as rhetorical performances
with an erotic theme, his current poem ("The Flea") represents a more profound meditation on the theme of love and its
consequences ("And in this flea, our two bloods mingled be.")
Throughout Susan Roberts' production, Donne conducted a dialogue with his Muse, personified
by The Flea (Toby Jones). Hitherto The Flea had enjoyed almost total control over Donne's imagination, but now he had
a rival in the person of Ann More. The Flea made desperate efforts to restore his status - by reminding Donne
about the possible consequences of marrying Ann - but the task proved futile. Donne pledged his troth to Ann, while
The Flea met a violent demise at the end of the play.
While The Flea dramatized the difficulties of living in the late Elizabethan era at a time of almost continual
political struggle, it was far more preoccupied with the process of artistic creation. In his earlier life
as a rake and political secretary, Donne regarded his poems as mere performances, to be read out in front of a -
mostly male - audience. Once he had fallen in love, his work became far more profound, assuming that quality that
twentieth century critics would later describe as "metaphysical." Put more simply, he understood the true purpose
of writing poetry.