The Theatreguide.London Review
Duchess Theatre Spring-Summer 2012
Inspired by a Stratford conference celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, David Edgar has written for the Royal Shakespeare Company a rumination on the social and historical context in which that committee-constructed translation was made.
He finds that, far from being a pure scholarly or ecclesiastical exercise, the making of this bible was coloured from start (and even before) to finish by national, international and religious politics.
The play opens with a meeting of some of the translators at the home of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, called to iron out some minor details, but it is soon evident that no detail is too minor to have implications. Did Jesus, for example, say that Peter was the rock on which he'd build his 'church' or his 'congregation'? 'Church' cedes a little too much authority to the Catholics, but 'congregation' comes from the vocabulary of the Puritans.
As each seemingly small question threatens to polarise the committee we also see that they are all aware of the project's potential effect, good or bad, on their individual careers, and are not making their decisions disinterestedly.
Edgar then flashes back seventy-five years to find William Tyndale on the eve of his execution for the heresy of translating the bible into English, the very act we've just seen being performed by royal command. Tyndale's act was even more directly political, then, an openly revolutionary support of the Protestant challenge to the Church.
On his way back to the opening scene Edgar pauses at a chronological midpoint for a semi-comic interlude that reminds us that England changed religions back and forth a few times in the Sixteenth Century, so that few could keep up with what they were allowed to believe or might be forbidden to believe next year.
Back in 1610, Tyndale's ghost haunts Andrewes, partly pleased to see his work being carried on and partly annoyed that they are watering down and prettying up his vernacular version.
The play thus carries a lot of historical, biographical and ecclesiastical weight, and David Edgar does not always wear his research lightly, with loads of information thrown at us faster than we're likely to be able to absorb it. (I defy anyone to work out and remember just who in that committee is high church and who is low.)
He's also forced to set up conversations and encounters just to get the data to us. Too often people remind each other at length of things they both know, just so we'll hear it, and Edgar invents a housemaid for Andrewes who is improbably literate, deeply knowledgeable about the bible and feisty enough to challenge the translators at their own game, just to get the challenges into the play.
Still, even if we may remain unsure about some of the political subtleties of Edgar's story, the central insight – that the King James Bible was very much the political product of politically-aware men – does come across, and the human cost of this, at least to his two central figures Andrewes and Tyndale, makes for moving drama.
Oliver Ford Davies shows us how much it pains Andrewes to descend into the political squabbles, especially since his own very-high-church inclinations clash with his attempt to be a mediator. In some ways Stephen Boxer has a simpler job, since Tyndale, either alive or as a ghost, never wavers from the conviction that he is right, but Boxer invests that confidence with a burning energy that raises it above simple self-righteousness.
Jodie McNee is impressive as the erudite housemaid, though you can never really believe in her character, and Mark Quartley offers some generous acting while serving as foil and straight man to Boxer's Tyndale in the prison scene.
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