David Edgar’s Written on the Heart is a welcome and thoroughly engaging addition to the West End list in Gregory Doran’s intelligent production, his first representation in London since being announced as the RSC’s artistic director designate.
Some may find it stodgy going, but they would be people uninterested in language, the art of translation, the extent to which the Reformation submerged (not quite) the papal habits and influence, and the eternal Shakespearean struggle between monarchy and the church.
The King James Bible was published in 1611, the same year as The Tempest was first performed. Edgar's play takes place in London one year earlier as the academic clergy gather to decide on the final version. They are supervised by Lancelot Andrewes, the tortured Bishop of Ely and the outstanding divine of his day (an ideal role for Oliver Ford Davies).
We flash back to Flanders, where William Tyndale (Stephen Boxer), author of the outlawed version of the Bible (see Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn play at the Globe these past two seasons), is about to be burnt for his “heresies"; then forward to Yorkshire 50 years later for the consequences in the country.
Finally, as the conference is resumed, Edgar writes one of his greatest scenes in the meeting of Andrewes and Tyndale’s ghost, adding “majesty to the meaningful” and establishing Tyndale’s contribution to the final outcome. It is a moving and pointedly played encounter by Ford Davies and Boxer, immanent with a pivotal, historic significance.
Doran’s production is more lucid than in Stratford and Francis O'Connor’s design of a great wooden screen, with Ford Davies punishing himself in prayer on the altar within has been neatly transposed from Swan to Duchess. Anglicans and Catholics alike will enjoy the plain chant, the incense and the painted frescoes.
And I challenge any doubters not to be moved in mysterious ways as the Bible-punching ecclesiastical greybeards, nicely characterised by a bunch of RSC worthies – Joseph Kloska, Bruce Alexander, James Hayes, Paul Chahidi and Jim Hooper – trade translators’ phrases and come to a touching agreement on the Sermon on the Mount.
Not a world of sighs, perhaps, but a continent or two in Ford Davies’s exhausted admission that, “One sees the argument against ‘delectable’”; and Edgar even supplies a nice pay-off to that line before Sam Marks drops by as the Prince of Wales to add his pennyworth.
It’s not all clerical gas and gaiters: Annette McLaughlin takes a break from musicals as an elegant chaperone to the little Duke of York, and Jodie McNee as Andrewes’ housemaid suffers the indignity of a naughty priest’s carnal interest before emerging as the popular voice of common sense on literature and the liturgy.
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