Sunday, 30 October 2011

Written on the Heart

As 2011 fades away, the RSC delivers its contribution to the celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the publication of the Authorised (King James) Version of the Bible.

Frankly, the first twenty minutes (or so) of Written on the Heart are a bit of a challenge: we seem to have landed in the midst of umpteen Rowan Williams lookalikes, all getting hot under the ruff on seemingly piffling points of translation: 'church' or 'congregation'; 'confess' or 'acknowledge'; 'heal' or 'save'? Oh please.

Clever move. With 'Why does any of this matter?' hovering, Edgar begins to forge a chain of profoundly human stories spanning more than 80 years of turbulent history - and completely justifies his perfect choice of title.

(And there are shelf-loads of history to get across: one shudders at the clunky nightmare that might have come from a less gifted dramatist. Top marks for artful exposition.)

Contrasting translators bookend the story: Jacobean prelate Lancelot Andrewes, whose devotion to the King's project may raise him to an Archbishopric - and, back in the 1530s, William Tyndale, exiled, imprisoned and facing death for daring to translate the scriptures so that both ploughboy and priest might have equal access to the word of God.

So far so worthy documentary? Far from it.

Edgar's swift and subtle storytelling draws us in to the passions implicit in the story: immense self-sacrifice, courage and vision - and also compromise, self-interest and betrayal.

And along the way he delivers a fizzingly engaging two-hander central scene, incorporating profound theology, political controversy - and (emphatically) many laughs as well as moments of tear-prickling emotion.

Director Gregory Doran has, as he so often does, gathered a Rolls Royce cast: special mention to the magisterial Oliver Ford Davies as Andrewes and Stephen Boxer whose William Tyndale had me heading home to read up this great man's story.

Written on the Heart runs at the Swan Theatre, S-u-A, until March. Don't miss it.

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