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.

Show Hide image

Netflix's Ozark is overstuffed – not to mention tonally weird

Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

The main reason why Ozark, the new Netflix series, feels so underpowered has to do with its star, Jason Bateman (who also directs): a good actor who badly wants for charisma, he simply can’t carry it alone. Watching the first few episodes, I kept thinking of Jon Hamm in Mad Men and (a better example here) Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, both of whom played, as does Bateman, characters around which the plots of their respective series turned. When they were on screen, which was often, it was all but impossible to tear your eyes from them; when they were off it, you felt like you were only biding your time until they returned. But when Bateman disappears from view, you hardly notice. In fact, it feels like a plus: at least now you might get to see a bit more of the deft and adorable Laura Linney.

In Ozark, Bateman is Marty, an outwardly square guy whose big secret is that he is a money launderer for the second biggest drugs cartel in Mexico. When the series opens, he and his wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children are living in Chicago, where he nominally works as a financial advisor.

By the end of the first episode, however, they’re on their way to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Marty’s partner, Bruce, has been on the fiddle, and the cartel, having summarily executed him, now wants Marty both to pay back the cash, and to establish a few new businesses in which future income may be cleaned far from the prying eyes of the law enforcement agencies. If this sounds derivative, it is. We’re in the realm of Breaking Bad, only where that show gave us out-of-control Bunsen burners and flesh-eating chemicals, this one is more preoccupied with percentages and margins.

Where’s the friction? Well, not only is the FBI on Marty’s tail, his wife has been cheating on him, with the result that their marriage is now just another of his business arrangements. The locals (think Trump supporters with beards as big as pine trees) have proved thus far to be on the unfriendly side, and having paid off their debts, the only house Marty can afford has a cliché – sorry, crotchety old guy – living in the basement. On paper, admittedly, this all sounds moderately promising. But hilarity does not ensue. As dull as the Lake of the Ozarks when the tourist season is over, not even Linney can make Bill Dubuque’s dialogue come alive. Her character should be traumatised: before they left Chicago, the cartel, for reasons I do not completely understand, pushed her podgy lover – splat! – off his balcony. Instead, she’s fussing about the crotchety old guy’s sexism.

Ozark is overstuffed and tonally weird, so I won’t be binge-watching this one. This completes rather a bad run for me and Netflix; after the lame new series of House of Cards and the egregious Gypsy, this is the third of its shows on the trot to bore me rigid. Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

And now to The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat (19 July, 8pm), in which we hear the sound of the “living history” barrel being scraped so loudly, those attending the meeting at which it was commissioned must surely have worn ear defenders. Basically, this is a series in which four confectioners “go back in time” to discover how their forebears used sugar (first, the Tudors; next week, the Georgians).

What it means in practice is lots of Generation Game-style faffing with candied roses and coriander comfits by people in long skirts and silly hats – a hey-nonny-nonny fiesta of pointlessness that is itself a sugar coating for those nasty things called facts (ie a bit of tokenism about slavery and our ancestors’ trouble with their teeth).

Resident expert, food historian Dr Annie Gray, strained to give the proceedings urgency, sternly reminding the confectioners that the sugar house they’d spent hours building did not yet have a roof. But who cared if it didn’t? Destined to be eaten by fake Tudor guests at a fake Tudor banquet, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to lose their head for it – not even, alas, at Broadcasting House. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

0800 7318496