WRITTEN ON THE HEART
The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 30th November, 2011
David Edgar’s new play at the RSC deals with the creation of the King James Bible but is about words, the power of words and the abuses of power. It begins with a group of mainly elderly clergymen gathering together to finalise the last details before the book can be published. There are some words and phrases still in dispute. Should it read “flock” instead of “fold” for example? What if they put “penance” instead of “repentance”? They bicker and argue and what could be as deathly dull as sitting in on a committee meeting without biscuits is the opposite. The engaging characters draw us in and their work –which has become a chore to them, hence their irascibility and the conflict – is shown to be interesting, nay verily, fascinating.
We go back in time to see early Bible translator William Tyndale still hard at it even though he is incarcerated in Flanders. A young priest pays him a visit and after much proselytising, volunteers to sneak Tyndale’s latest translations out of the gaol and back to England for publication. This lengthy scene reminded me of the film version of Amadeus, when old Salieri narrates his story to a hapless young minister.
One of my favourite scenes involves the questioning of a church warden during the Reformation. He is suspected of popery (I kept hearing “pot pourri”) because he has yet to white out the stained glass windows in his church. He is grilled over other items until he can bear it no longer and points out to these officious idiots the impracticalities and expense of having to tear things down when one monarch accedes and then replace them all when the next one comes along, only to get rid of them again… This is the Reformation at grass roots level, shedding light on an aspect of this period of history I had not previously considered.
And what a period of history it was! Religious extremism meant you could be executed for having shiny things as part of your worship. Or not having them, depending on who was on the throne. The play highlighted the ridiculousness of all of this. To die for one’s beliefs is one thing; to kill for them another. There is much talk of the free man, the plough boy and so on, being able to read the scriptures in language he will understand but really the Bible is shown to be an instrument through which power is wielded and tyranny is imposed. King James’s translators are reminded that His Majesty does not want any mention of tyrants and so they put a spin on their translation into a wishy-washy “dark forces” that could mean anything or nothing.
The second act largely consists of a duologue between the ghost of Tyndale (an excellent Stephen Boxer) visiting the Bishop of Ely (Oliver Ford Davies- also excellent). I was again reminded of Amadeus: the scene where the dying Mozart dictates his Requiem to the lesser talented Salieri, who scribbles frantically with his quill pen, trying to keep up. Here the dead Tyndale dictates the “proper” translations of the list of quibbled-over words and phrases while Ely tries to take it all in. It all ends in a mess when the rest of the committee file in. The list is obliterated by a spillage and Ely has ink on his hands – symbolic of the bloodshed his translation will lead to.
I have a problem with Mary the maid. She seemed too literate and too articulate, too prepared in her arguments, to be true. She is more of a dramatic device than a character, existing only to enable two sides of the argument to be thrashed out.
Always engaging, at turns amusing and enthralling, this is a sumptuous production of a powerful if verbiose new play. It reveals new aspects of an important event in Western culture and also is very telling about our own “interesting” times. There are still people around who use holy books as weapons and justification for their extreme and abhorrent views. Beware those who would impose their beliefs on others.