Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 7 November, 2011
David Edgar has an enduring preoccupation with the ways language channels and even defines thought: if we do not have access to a description of something, then how can we properly include it in our discourse? Several times his plays have shown groups of people discussing in minute detail how to word a particular document such as a peace treaty. In this new Royal Shakespeare Company commission, the document in question is the King James Bible. With Protestantism 400 years ago between the rock of Catholicism and the hard place of Puritanism, individual words in the Bible mattered: “repentance” or the Romish “penance”, “church” or the more radical “congregation”? (There were also less fraught disputes, such as between “delectable” and “very pleasant”.)
For those of us fascinated by words and their uses, this matter is in itself fairly compelling. However, in all conscience (there’s a religious turn of phrase), Edgar does not always animate the human stories behind such matters. Here, the first and last of the four scenes involve a meeting in 1610 between a number of bishops and scholars to iron out some final textual cruces (another religiously charged term); scene two flashes back three-quarters of a century to the night before the execution of William Tyndale, the translator of the first and clandestine English translation of the New Testament; in scene three, a Yorkshire parish in the 1580s is visited by a kind of Anglican inquisition, showing that the 1568 “Bishops’ Bible” in English has already become an instrument of authority. Before the final 1610 meeting, Tyndale’s shade visits Bishop Lancelot Andrewes to facilitate Edgar in some historical exposition and the underlining of the play’s vision, which is that of good and devout men trying to reconcile spiritual and temporal imperatives: what must be written on the heart is that “only love and mercy truly comprehend the law”.
Oliver Ford Davies is excellent as Andrewes, weighing his words and ideas scrupulously yet also capable of passion when contending with Stephen Boxer’s Tyndale, a man driven by inner fire. Gregory Doran’s production is both fluent and sedulous, but like Edgar’s script cannot quite place the beating heart of the play in a living breast. Yet in the end, isn’t all theatre a kind of theological metaphor? For above there is a great light, and below only darkness and gnashing of teeth.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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