Written on the Heart
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Review by Kevin Quarmby
Written on the Heart, David Edgar’s celebratory play about the creation of the King James Bible, offers a sensitive exploration of faith and creativity. Set during several periods of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and presenting characters at various stages of their religious careers, Written on the Heart is both thought-provoking and moving. At times, it is impossible not to sympathise with the powerful emotional commitment of martyrs to ‘The Word’: men and women willing to die for their belief, willing to burn at the stake, their bodies suffering prolonged, indescribable agonies in the absolute conviction that their duty is to prise the Bible out of the hands of Latin-speaking priests and into those of the humble workers in the fields.
Edgar has conjured this world through a subtle reapplication of early modern dialogue; not Shakespearean for Shakespeare’s sake, but more evocative of a bygone linguistic culture. In the mouths of the protagonists, Edgar’s archaized speeches sound all the more real because all allude to events and contexts with which we are already familiar. The Gunpowder Plot, King James and his court, the dandyish and ill-fated Prince Henry and the precocious, equally ill-fated Prince Charles, all add to the historical immediacy of the narrative.
So many fine performances make up the whole. Central is Oliver Ford Davies, whose Lancelot Andrewes is an aged and sick cleric, raddled with guilt because of deeds executed during his iconoclastic youth. Ford Davies finds that perfect level of authority and wry humour, tinged with powerful emotional trauma. For his performance alone, this play is superb.
Add to that the William Tyndale of Stephen Boxer. Tyndale, an early translator of the Bible into the vernacular English tongue, is incarcerated in a Low Countries jail. He faces the fire and the stake for his audacious blasphemy and heresy. Tyndale is visited by a Catholic priest (Mark Quartley). What follows is nothing more than a ‘conversion’ of the young cleric, who spirits the remaining translated texts out of the prison, so disseminating it to a waiting Protestant world. The intense energy of Boxer’s performance is so believable, so poignant, that I’m sure he could convert even the hardest non-believer.
Later, Tyndale returns to Lancelot Andrewes as a very angry, forthright ghost. Eager to know whether his work had any effect on subsequent biblical translations, Tyndale is shown how his poetic vision was embraced and is now integrated into what was to become the King James Bible. His labours, and his ultimate suffering, were not in vain.
There was, however, much argument and debate about the final word-choices of the King James Bible. This is reflected in the angry exchanges between the interested parties, academic and religious authorities who pour over the Greek, Latin and Hebrew texts trying to reach a consensus of interpretive understanding. Egos and careers are massaged and managed as John Overall (Jim Hooper), Laurence Chaderton (James Hayes) and William Laud (Paul Chahidi), fight to gain possession of ‘The Word’. Only Samuel Ward, played with great passion and sensitivity by Joseph Kloska, seems truly to desire a fundamental truth to emerge. Ward cares with the conviction of a zealot. His efforts, sometimes frustrated, are nevertheless the tinder that ignites the fire in the text’s translation.
Gregory Doran has directed a magnificent cast in a stylish religious drama that is as surprisingly engrossing as it is accessible. It helps to have prior knowledge of the history of the time, but anyone even slightly familiar with the reigns of the Tudors and the Stuarts will understand the nuances of the problem the translators of the King James Bible had to face. Politics and personal gain. Vanity and fear. No wonder the occasional references to St Paul’s Cathedral were greeted with wry ironic glee by the attentive Swan Theatre audience. If you like your theatre to tug at the heartstrings and to stimulate the brain cells, Written on the Heart is definitely for you.