Unless you’re an expert on the English Reformation – something that I certainly don’t claim to be – I suggest doing a bit of research before stepping inside the Duchess theatre to see the RSC’s production of Written On The Heart. Thankfully, the former Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral was on hand to enlighten me via the programme notes.
Written for the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, David Edgar’s play draws attention to the importance of the English Reformation in bringing the word of God directly to the people, rather than through the clergy who acted as messengers of God. As well as focusing on the Church of England’s third official English translation of the Christian Bible, Written On The Heart puts emphasis on the Tyndale Bible, which was created 80 years prior to the King James Bible and is believed to be the first English translation taken directly from Greek and Hebrew texts.
The subject of translation is timely, what with Shakespeare’s Globe’s recent launch of the Globe To Globe Festival, which sees all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays translated into 37 languages. But in Written On The Heart, there is only one language, albeit innumerable different versions of it. I’m sure in fact that an entire thesaurus could be derived from the many different Biblical translations featured in Edgar’s play, especially where bladed instruments are concerned.
On the whole it is difficult to comment on the play’s characters, mainly because the majority of its duration involves a group of irate clergymen bickering about whether “penance” is allowed to replace “repentance” and whether “very pleasant” is an acceptable alternative to “delectable.” But when I remember the profound words of my French teacher, who used to say “something is always lost in translation,” I can appreciate their need to quibble over each individual word.
Emerging from the quarrelling, however, are two stand-out performances by RSC veterans Oliver Ford Davies and Stephen Boxer. Boxer’s William Tyndale comes across as the hero of the story after being condemned to death for his humble intentions to share the word of God with the ploughboy, while Ford Davies as Bishop Lancelot Andrewes brings a hint of light-hearted comedy to an otherwise serious production through his wearied groans and mutterings.
The subtle shift in time separating the two deeply troubled characters would have been difficult to decipher if it weren’t for the helpful projections of dates on to the set. The set itself, designed by Francis O’Connor, looked as if a place of worship was lifted in its entirety and placed on to the Duchess’s stage, while further light projections gave the impression of intricate stained glass.
As someone whose historical knowledge doesn’t stretch much further than the wives of Henry VIII, I feel that I left the theatre not quite an expert but certainly more knowledgeable on the subject of the 16th century Church than when I entered.