First staged last year at Stratford, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of David Edgar’s Written on the Heart commemorates the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Like Howard Brenton’s Ann Boleyn at Shakespeare’s Globe, the play acknowledges the big influence William Tyndale’s banned Tudor English translation had on the Authorized Version overseen by Lancelot Andrewes, which went on to become not only the most widely used Bible in the English-speaking world but one of the most important icons of our language and culture.
The action starts in 1610 in the London residence of then Bishop of Ely Andrewes, as various clerics and scholars gather to make the final revisions to the official English translation of the Bible commissioned by King James I six years earlier. As they argue on behalf of their respective high or low church interpretations, Andrewes, favourite to succeed the mortally ill Archbishop of Canterbury, is wracked by guilt for his own betrayals of personal integrity in pursuit of worldly ambition.
Then we travel to a prison in Flanders in 1536, where on the eve of his execution, the Protestant reformer Tyndale, outlawed by Henry VIII’s government, is visited by a young Roman Catholic priest trying to save his soul. Next we move forward to the reign of Elizabeth I, to a Yorkshire church being stripped of its ‘Catholic imagery’ in 1586, where the young Andrewes first encounters the text of the now accepted Tyndale, before finally returning to 1610, when the ghost of Tyndale advises the tortured Andrewes on the new scriptural text.
Although probably best known for his spectacular adaptation for the RSC of Nicholas Nickleby in the 1980s, Edgar has made his reputation over the last 40 years as a heavyweight, left-wing political playwright examining topical social issues. He doesn’t usually do light, and Written on the Wind is no exception: its seriously ambitious approach to this important historical and religious subject-matter displays all the intellectual rigour that you would expect. However, though the theological debates can be particularly demanding, the quality of the writing is so good and frequently witty that the play never becomes dry, while the ‘meeting’ of Andrewes and Tyndale is genuinely moving. The big point Edgar makes is that producing a Bible written in relatively plain, accessible English was a significant democratic advance as ordinary people no longer had to rely on the mediation of an elite clergy.
RSC Artistic Director Designate Gregory Doran handles the complex issues of the drama with aplomb, bringing to life the human idiosyncrasy behind the arcane dogma, with imaginative blocking of group scenes. Francis O’Connor’s splendid set of altar, crucifix, stained-glass windows, candles and incense evokes an ecclesiastical atmosphere, with imposing wooden panelling and coat of arms suggesting the temporal power that went hand in hand with the Church’s spirituality at that time.
As Andrewes, Oliver Ford Davies delivers yet another impressive clerical performance, as a highly intelligent man aware of his own sins in the past, who Pilate-like wants to wash his hands of shedding more blood through religious conflict. Stephen Boxer’s Tyndale is equally strong, a man of passion and principle ahead of his time. Jamie Ballard gives the young Andrewes a quiet authority, with Daniel Stewart as the fanatical Puritan he destroys and Mark Quartley as the Catholic Priest turned Tyndale’s apostle. Bruce Alexander’s self-important Calvinist Bishop of London is nicely matched by Jim Hooper’s sardonic Dean of St Paul’s, as part of an epic semantic contest to determine exactly just what the Word of God should be.