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Theatre review: Written on the Heart

A secular pilgrimage to Stratford to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.

Do you, from time to time, set your house in order, fall flat on your face, pour out your heart and by the skin of your teeth know for a certainty how the mighty are fallen? In which case, you are a man after my own heart (1 Samuel 13:14) and are thinking along lines first carved out, or smoothed into popular use, by the King James Bible.

Written On the Heart, currently being performed by the RSC at Stratford's Swan Theatre, takes its place amongst the many theatrical events this year that mark the 400th anniversary of the KJB's genesis. Writer David Edgar focuses on its birth pangs - the hard labour of the translators, and especially of the brilliant cleric in charge of the enterprise, Lancelot Andrewes.

Alongside the incense, one catches just a breath of the ancient passions that once animated this country, when the word of God was quite literally a burning issue. England had tacked violently between Catholicism and the Reformation, and it took the accession of an unusually tolerant monarch (James I) to draw a divine line under the bloodshed. Andrewes steered a compromise course between popery and puritanism, mindful always of the Royal fiat to enshrine kingly authority snugly alongside God's.

This sober play takes on one big chunk of complicated ecclesiastical history. It is in effect a dramatized colloquy. Fortunately it's nowhere near as tedious as it sounds, thanks to a magisterial performance from the white and whiskery Oliver Ford Davies as Andrewes, and the wit and earthy beauty of Edgar's own language. Gregory Doran's direction keeps the parleying cassocks nicely animated, the staging quietly impresses, and the sacred singing loads some holy frisson.

The action - though action is putting it strongly - takes place in 1610, but we are also whisked back to 1536 to visit the gifted linguist William Tyndale, the first to translate and print an English bible from Hebrew and Greek texts. He is in a Flemish prison; his botched strangling, then burning, still to come.

His reproachful presence underscores the huge and largely unacknowledged debt the KJB owes Tyndale (who we can thank for apple of my eye, salt of the earth, fat of the land and bald as a coot, amongst much, much else). Edgar goes as far as to dramatically resurrect him as the conscience of the troubled Andrewes. Has the translator sacrificed meaning for majesty? Tyndale, played with an austere ardour by Stephen Boxer, favours plainer speech. His Satan says"Tush!" to Eve. And is Andrewes right to replace "tyrants" with the less royally contentious "giants"? If there are no prelates and there is no purgatory in the bible, why does the church cling to them?

Not all the dramatic tricks work so well. The flouncing in of royal princes just looks like an excuse to show off some rather peachy pumpkin breeches. The young prince's request to the bearded clerics that they "show" how they arrived at their translation seems an inelegant entrée to the process - and this is a pity, as the process was innately theatrical. The translators read bits aloud to each other; this bible was conceived as a performance above all else.

Andrewes himself didn't care too much for his cesarean creation, preferring to preach from the Geneva bible (a more radical descendant of Tyndale's). He would have been amazed at the longevity of his own version. Amazed, too, that we "cultural Anglicans" laud it less as an attempt to ventriloquise The Word, than as literature in its own right.

It's this enduring workmanship in his mother tongue that perhaps we don't get much of a sense of from Edgar's tight period focus. Trekking to see the play in Stratford, I formed part of the freezing mass of secular pilgrims visiting the birthplace of Shakespeare, his more flashy contemporary. I was reminded of Andrewes's 1622 Christmas sermon, so lovingly plagiarised by TS Eliot in The Journey of the Magi:

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.

Just reading it makes your cheeks ache in the solstitial winds.