Sixty-Six Books

Kwame Kwai-Armah, Neil Bartlett, Caroline Bird, Yemisi Blake, Billy Bragg, Moira Buffini, Sam Burns, Suhayla El Bushra, Anne Carson, Matt Charman, Brian Chikwava, Elinor Cook, Laura Dockrill, Carol Ann Duffy, Sheila Duffy,
The Bush Theatre in association with the King James Bible Trust
The Bush Theatre
(2011)

Sixty-six plays, commissioned by Artistic Director Josie Rourke in collaboration with Christopher Haydon, Rachael Holmes and Ben Power, that are their writers response to the 66 books of the King James version of the Holy Bible 400 years after its publication. It is a mammoth undertaking that involves 144 actors and 23 directors that began at just after 7pm on Friday night to start the Bush Theatre's first season in its new venue with a 24-hour long performance that is less than half way through as I write this.

What can you say except "Bravo!" This is not really the time for critical comment, but I suppose that that is what you, dear reader, will expect. There are braver souls who are going to attempt to give a judgement on the whole cycle but it is a feast of which I only tasted the starters and they were tasty and beautifully presented against the bare brick wall of the theatre on which ranks of candles represented the books of the Bible from Genesis to Revelations with a pianist as an introduction and briefly playing between each play. Using the theatre in a three-sided configuration, warmly lit and intimate, all the plays I saw were strong on audience contact.

The responses of individual writers vary widely from a direct retelling of the story or a variant on it to a modern situation that reflects some particular passage or the idea behind it. Many of the writers are not dramatists and, as the published version of their texts shows, they have not necessarily organised their contribution in play form but all their contributions are performed by actors and on this occasion presented in canonical order.

We begin at the top with God, the Book of Genesis and the creator. No, this isn't a Hollywood spectacular creation, just God Herself telling us. There's an angel with her back to us who's discovered to be taking down the Divine Word on her laptop and the deity appears in the person of a very stylish Catherine Tate. "God Here," she says. "People ask me how I came to be a global brand…" she's dictating her Godblog, "God (that's me) said 'Let there be Light' and there was Light. See? I was incandescent with joy." With the snake turning up in the Garden with an apple iPhone and Satan lying about WMDs, it's deliciously funny. Jeanette Winterson's script is a gift to the performer and a splendid kick off.

Anne Michael's response to Exodus is The Crossing, the story of Moses: the wicker basket, the plagues, the Red Sea by way of Terezin and Bergen-Belsen, passionately delivered by Polly Frame; a crossing not just between the walls of water but between identities and loyalties, rightness and wrongness, stone tables written and shattered. "Morality is a muscle. It must be exercised," she tells us in a poem full of language to be savoured.

Leviticus is the book defining the rituals, sacrifices and what is clean and unclean by Judaic law and Caroline Bird's monologue The Foundation is a response that presents a self-harming woman coming out of therapy and seemingly still trying to free herself from the effects of torture and indoctrination. Kathryn Pogson plays it movingly but it is dense with suggestion, too much to take it at once.

Neil Bartlett's response to Numbers, The Opening of the Mouth, a reworking of the story of Baalam's ass, is presented as someone taking it as the text for a sermon and at the same time a celebration of the vitality of the language of the 1611 translation as he remembers its reality to a 13-year-old. It is brilliantly performed by Philip Franks

The Rules is Maha Khan Philips' response to Deuteronomy: the ghost of a woman stoned to death for killing the man who raped her, a victim trapped by the letter of the law. It is a powerful critique of outdated, unfair values that Anhana Vasan plays as a disembodied voice with the stage empty except for an open grave. She captures the indignation and frustration but it lacks the contact with the audience of a physical presence.

Daisy Hasan's Sole Fide - By Faith Alone, written in response to the book of Joshua, I found confusing. There are echoes of the story of Joshua, the new leader, and the advance into already occupied land but I wasn't the only one to find it confusing. I had thought it was satirising American evangelicals but apparently is about a Christian group in India that has decided it is actually the lost tribe of Israel and has converted to Judaism - I missed a crucial reference to North East India in the confusion of the excited multi-voiced storytelling and assumed the Indian references were to Native Americans. It was good to have three performers after a series of solos but this was narrated conversation, not straight dialogue, and for me didn't work as theatre.

Obi Abili, playing Sam in the next piece, Beardy by Tom Wells, was so different: a fully realised character, telling what had happened but totally engaging. Beardy is the Bearded Lady Debbie who he's sweet on. He's the circus strongman and though the others don't yet know it he's killed the circus lion - from which comes forth honey. Yes, it's a new take on Samson and Delilah and Abili's performance makes it a delight.

The Book of Ruth (& Naomi), Stella Duffy's response to the Book of Ruth, has Ruth and her Moabite daughter-in-law Naomi looking back on what has happened to them, closely following the biblical incidents but giving the reason for Ruth not returning to her own land and the quotation "thy daughter-in-law, which loveth thee, is better to thee than seven sons", a very contemporary interpretation. It is beautifully played by Kate Duchêne and Nikki Amuka-Bird.

This group of plays ends with Andrew Motion's poem David and Goliath, in response, of course to the story in the Book of Samuel. It is another monologue, spoken by Malcolm Sinclair. It is only fifteen lines but they set up everything ready for things to happen and Sinclair delivers a performance of distinction. It is complete in itself but you can't help wishing there was much more.

And indeed there is. Another 21 hours at least before this performance finishes, but I must leave those further 57 plays for others to report on. These first nine are a memorable achievement and if the others have the beauty, the content and the quality of performance shown so far, this is indeed a major piece of work which not only celebrates this great piece of English literature but is a wide ranging comment on our own times.

"Sixty-Six Books" is playing in repertoire at the Bush Theatre until 29th October 2011

Howard Loxton