Duchess Theatre, April 19-July 21
Author: David Edgar
Director: Gregory Doran
Producers: Bill Kenwright, Thelma Holt, ATG, Royal Shakespeare Company
Cast includes: Oliver Ford Davies, Stephen Boxer, Jodie McNee, Mark Quartley
This densely written, sumptuously staged, RSC hit has been bravely imported from Stratford thanks to the passion of producer Thelma Holt. It’s also the first West End production directed by Gregory Doran since he was made Artistic Director of The Royal Shakespeare Company.
It concerns the tricky business of translating the Bible for the common man; something which much pre-occupied churchmen and scholars in the sixteen hundreds but also those in power who’d have preferred ordinary people not to be empowered by access to the previously Latin text.
Those brave and stubborn scholars who attempted the feat often faced persecution and found themselves and their manuscripts consigned to the flames. We get a series of debates on the minutiae of interpreting the word of God which flash backwards and forwards to show the consequences of the promotion, suppression or misinterpretation of the new bibles.
In key scenes the scholar William Tyndale (Stephen Boxer) impresses a young priest sent to get his repentance, and then returns as a ghost to bicker with the Bishop of Ely (Oliver Ford Davies) who’s reluctantly arbitrating on the contents of the new King James Bible.
I’ve never been surrounded by so many snoozing audience members and advanced bookings are very poor so I suspect this classy night out won’t be running for very long. This is a shame. Frustratingly David Edgar’s characters keep explaining to each other, for our benefit, things which logically they’d already know but if you can keep up with the history lesson you’ll be rewarded with some scintillating debate on the nature of religious expression and suppression.
The evening is a resonant and topical meditation on how religious texts can change society, reflecting our own current unease with fundamentalist faith. I also found it a reminder of the simple power of pen, paper and enough light to read by – something we take for granted. Imagine feeling compelled to write out a bible in long hand then seeing it burnt, before the invention of photocopying and word processing.
It’s also a chance for some veteran actors to turn in some witty and engaging performances particularly Boxer and Ford Davies who make you feel like you’re watching Old Testament profits in earth shattering debate.
VERDICT: **** (Four stars) It’s well worth sticking with this dense play that eventually delivers some engaging and poignant debate on the power of words.