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.

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition