October 17, 2011 5:35 pm

Sixty-Six Books, Bush Theatre, London

The tiny Bush Theatre in west London has always punched above its weight, and it marks its move into new premises with typical panache. Rather than launch the new building with one play, artistic director Josie Rourke has chosen to do so with 66 mini-plays, each a response by a different writer to the 66 books of the Bible. The opening night in fact went on for 24 hours, with all 66 performed back-to-back (hardy souls have another opportunity to watch this at the end of the run), performed by 130 actors.

It’s a tremendous idea. It marks the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible; it offers contemporary writers a chance to engage with the Bible’s stories and teachings; and it celebrates the diversity of style and subject that the Bush has championed over its 40 years to date. You get intensely felt pieces (such as Caroline Bird’s response to Leviticus); stories told from a new perspective (such as Stella Duffy’s tender Ruth); and thoughtful, personal interpretations, such as Neil Bartlett’s lovely little monologue from a middle-aged man who recalls reading from Numbers as a child. Billy Bragg enjoins us to “do unto others as you would have them do to you”; Rowan Williams offers a profound response to the story of Lazarus. Some segments are more successful than others, but I enjoyed Jeanette Winterson’s acerbic version of Genesis, which launches the whole event, with Catherine Tate, as God, in a pair of impossibly high heels, rattling through events in the Garden of Eden in a sequence of tweets for Twitter.

The new theatre itself is a welcoming and sympathetic refit (by architects Haworth Tompkins) of a Victorian public library. The auditorium is flexible and intimate, though it holds 144 (nearly double the capacity of the old Bush), and retains the original pillars and windows. The café/bar has style (using old doors as the front of the bar itself) and leads into a light and spacious reading room, where members of the public can sit and read play-texts. There is an atmosphere of warmth and industry – even the ladies’ toilets are stage-struck: each cubicle is decorated with scripts. An inspiring start for the theatre’s new lease of life.

4 stars

www.bushtheatre.co.uk

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