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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
WRITTEN ON THE HEART
at Swan Theatre

DUSTING OFF OLD TEXT
By MICHAEL COVENEY

  Mark Quartley and Stephen Boxer/ Ph: Ellie Kurttz

The celebrations this year of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible have included 66 short plays (a response to each book) at the new Bush Theatre, readings at the National Theatre and now a new play by David Edgar for the Royal Shakespeare Company at the refurbished Swan in Stratford-upon-Avon.
 
The Bible, which was published in 1611, the same year as Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, is one of the cornerstones of English literature, like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or John Donne’s Sermons, and as rich a source of phrases that have entered the language as the Bard himself. Without it we would not know that “to every thing there is a season,” or ask “am I my brother’s keeper?” let alone peer “through a glass darkly.”
 
And so on. The story of how it came about, almost by accident, is the story Edgar tries to tell, but he’s also careful to make sure we realise that, among all the swirling cloaks and stick-on beards of the committee members who stumbled towards the final version (translating from the Greek and Hebrew, as well as mopping up the best of earlier versions), there was a profound political struggle.
 
That fight was over nothing less than the future of the Church of England, and the Bible was intended to be the talismanic symbol of the Reformation and future stability of the country. The Civil War soon put paid to that, but the Bible remained intact and influential.
 
The tension in Gregory Doran’s RSC production interestingly reflects the tension in the Bible’s creation. There’s a strong sense of Catholic guilt and ritual pulling at the dry and dusty discussions: the leading divine, the Bishop of Ely, Lancelot Andrewes (the man whose sermons converted T S Eliot to Christianity), is haunted by past sins, throwing himself on his altar while the choir sings motets.
 
The stage, in Francis O’Connor’s splendid design, is divided in two by a rood screen, decoratively carved, and an air of ecclesiastical righteousness hovers over the proceedings; except, that is, when one of the clerics is caught weighing his choices in quite the wrong way, by asking the housemaid to expose herself first from the front and then (to his greater approval) from behind.
 
The subsequent new 20th-century Bibles traduced many of the good choices made by the King James team. I grew up with a banal version published by the Catholic Truth Society that is as felicitous in phrase, and indeed paragraph, as a Jeffrey Archer novel. Andrewes and his fellows did the impossible, creating a masterpiece by committee.
 
Edgar captures the squabbles, and the pith of their arguments, with great clarity and wit, though it’s not always easy to appreciate the significance or drama of what is going on. One critic has complained about “blokes in cloaks” spouting over-elaborate sentences. Another has evoked the old Groucho Marx gag of not being sure whether he was watching one man with six beards or six men with one beard.
 
The action, or rather in-action, starts in 1610, darts back to Flanders in 1536 where William Tyndale is producing his outlawed version – a version that was hypocritically incorporated into the King James – and then over to Yorkshire in 1586. It’s not always obvious where we are.
 
But Edgar has a great gift of making thought sound dramatic, and in setting up a confrontation between Andrewes and Tyndale’s ghost (Tyndale was strangled and burnt at the stake for his “heresies”), he creates a focus and crux for the rest of the play.
 
You do get a sense of history in the making. And in the performances of Oliver Ford Davies and Stephen Boxer as Andrewes and Tyndale, we have two solid, reliable actors making the most of their limitations in the best possible way. They do boring, big time, and manage triumphantly to make it markedly less so. 

 


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