David Edgar’s Written on the Heart opens in a droll mood, with a bunch of querulous clerics grumbling about their muddy cloaks, a scene that bustles with life in Gregory Doran’s Royal Shakespeare Company production. But these grumbling 17th-century bishops are the men entrusted by King James I with the task of translating sacred text into English. And throughout this engaging, wise and compassionate play, Edgar keeps a fine tension between the import of the job and the human frailties of those doing it. It is a play that brings alive a period of great unrest, but which is also rich with ideas that still resonate in our own uncertain world.
Written to mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible last year, the play takes a broader view, springing back and forth between 1610, as the bishops try to hammer out a final version of the text, and 1536, as the radical Bible translator William Tyndale awaits execution. In the intervening decades, the idea of an English Bible has shifted from a dangerous object to one that might restore peace: central to both positions is an understanding of the power of words to liberate or control.
It is this that Edgar explores, and he does so with the zest of a writer who has a keen sense of the political significance of a turn of phrase. He has compared the haggling among the bishops with the machinations in The West Wing. These are characters who understand how a tiny twist in the wording of a message can make a huge difference to its impact – and to their own political fortunes.
All this would be as dry as dust if Edgar did not deliver a sympathetic portrayal the characters involved. Chief among these is Lancelot Andrewes, who presides over the bickering bishops. Oliver Ford Davies gives him a quiet, resigned dignity. But beneath this grave exterior lurks a seething mass of guilt and doubt, which emerges in an imagined encounter between him and the dead Tyndale (played with fiery intensity by Stephen Boxer). Their impassioned exchange about idealism and compromise, and meaning versus musicality, drives to the heart of the play.
It’s certainly dense and wordy in places, and one bishop does look rather like another. But Edgar and Doran reveal a distant debate about scripture to be alive with still-burning ideas about power, belief and independent thought.
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