In the beginning was the Bush and the Bush created Sixty-Six Books, an epic act of welcoming to their new home in the old library building on the Uxbridge Road in Shepherd’s Bush. It is an ambitious project by any standard, with 66 writers, 23 directors and 130 actors all coming together to create a book-by-book response to the King James Bible.
The writers involved include novelists, poets and song writers as well as playwrights. The Archbishop of Canterbury has supplied one of the pieces and an effort has been made to bring together writers from all faith backgrounds.
The new venue, housed in John Passmore Edwards’ elegant Victorian library building, is pleasing on many levels. It’s an inviting, versatile space, open in ways the previous theatre in its dinky room above a pub was never able to be. There’s a small library of playtexts, ensuring a sense of continuum and connection with the building’s past, a handsome bar, and two resident cats (to combat the resident mice). As the outgoing artistic director, Josie Rourke leads us out onto the roof, the sun is slowly setting and the sky is tinged with pink; Hammersmith and City trains lumber past and Shepherd’s Bush Market can be glimpsed next door and the place already feels very embedded in the community, a rootedness Rourke hopes will only grow over time.
Downstairs in the auditorium, sixty-six votive candles flicker against a bare brick back wall, creating a live wire from Genesis to Revelations. The new space is almost double the size of the previous auditorium, seating 144. The walls have been painted grey rather than black, a colour Rourke finds ‘warmer and kinder’, while the wings have been intentionally left unmasked. Sixty-Six Books begins and ends with a 24 hour marathon, all the plays performed in sequence. In between they will be sliced into more manageable chunks and on the 21st October there will be a twelve-hour overnighter at Westminster Abbey.
The cycle begins with Godblog, Jeanette Winterson’s intermittently amusing response to Genesis, in which Catherine Tate plays the great creator in a cream suit and fittingly epic high heels, speaking in a New York Jewish twang as she sends a series of tweets about the establishment of earth.com, her global brand in the making. This is dryly humorous at first, if tipped with cynicism, but it’s a difficult tone to sustain, and as Winterson schleps through the various stories of Genesis, it’s left to Tate’s charisma to hold the piece together. More monologues follow, most of the pieces have the air of stories being told. The strongest of these is Beardy, Tom Wells’ transposing of the Samson story from the Book of Judges to a circus sideshow, with Samson as the strong man in love with a bearded lady. Another stand-out was Stella Duffy’s two-hander, The Book of Ruth (and Naomi); granting these two women a voice, hymning their strength and friendship, it is as tenderly written as it is played by Nikki Amuka-Bird and Kate Duchene.
Textural variety is vital to keep a project like this from becoming monotonous and eventually – and necessarily – after a series of solo pieces, this comes. What also become apparent after even a few pieces is that a more than a cursory knowledge of the bible is required to really get the most out of the experience. While some pieces are only tangentially connected to the book in question, others are more deeply immersed in the text, so it does help to know your Malachi from your Obadiah. It’s worth brushing up beforehand.
I left after the first two ‘chapters’ but many were in it for the long haul, the whole journey (Exeunt’s Honour Bayes among them). Thumbing through the appropriately hefty playtext on the tube home, Chris Goode’s The Loss of All Things stood out as a piece I was particularly sorry not to see performed live. But even only having seen this small selection of the plays, the scale and scope of the project was easy to grasp, the ‘event’ factor apparent from the start. This was a thing you would remember being part of, and it was with a tinge of envy that I fell asleep knowing that Honour and a few other hardy souls would be there all through the night, there until the sun rose the next morning, there for works by Neil LaBute, Jack Thorne, Carol Ann Duffy and David Eldridge, and there all the way until the following evening’s closing salvo, a response to Revelations care of the author, Kate Mosse.