Written on the heart
WRITTEN ON THE HEART
By David Edgar
Swan Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon
The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) made headlines for all the wrong reasons in the autumn as theatre goers got up and walked out of its blood-soaked, sex-obsessed production of Marat/Sade. Something far better is their play commemorating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible (KJB).
Written on the Heart is a new play by David Edgar which grew out of a conference on the KJB held in 2008. Subsequently members of the RSC researched the period and personalities leading up to the1611 publication.
The play views the development of the English Bible through the lives of two principal characters, William Tyndale and Lancelot Andrewes. At the time of the action Andrewes is Bishop of Ely and a senior voice among the translation team. A scene set in Andrewes’ London residence in 1610 begins the drama by exploring the disputes over competing translations of particular words. Then follow two flash back sequences.
First we see Tyndale on the verge of his execution being visited in prison by a young priest whose purpose is to persuade him to recant of his beliefs. Through their debate on the translation and Tyndale’s urgent declaration of the gospel, the priest is converted and carries the precious Scriptures back to England.
Action set in Yorkshire in the 1580s sees the young fiercely Protestant Andrewes engaged in enforcing Anglican practice on a reluctant parish. Tyndale’s convert has become Andrewes’ mentor. Returning to Andrewes’ home, an imaginary encounter takes place between the aged Bishop and Tyndale’s ghost, who now sees, as he never did in his life, that his words are now freely read throughout England. His dying prayer has been answered.
The sheer difficulty of producing a translation by committee is exposed. How can one reconcile scholars with Catholic or Protestant sympathies when heavy theological or political issues rest on the words chosen? Do the translators opt for bishops or elders, church or congregation, confess or do penance? Will the King and the Archbishop allow anything remotely radical to reach the printed page?
A parallel theme explores how the beliefs and practices of individuals change with time. Must we inevitably lose zeal as we grow older? What of those who continue to adhere to beliefs we once shared but have now compromised?
A lot of issues are packed into two and a half hours. Dominating the performance, however, are the character and role of Tyndale — evangelist, translator, prophet and conscience of those who build on his work. (Do we in the English-speaking world really appreciate how much we owe this man?) Stephen Boxer is outstanding. His Tyndale is at times frightening in intensity but moving in his longing that the English common people should not just have the Scriptures, but know the Saviour they tell of.
There are faults, of course, but, considering the issues it covers, and handling them as well as it does, this is a production well worth supporting.
Andrew and Sandra Rome
Written on the Heart is in regular performance at Stratford until the end of January.