By David Edgar
Directed by Greg Doran
Venue: Swan Theatre
Date: Thursday 5th January 2012
The opening scene of this new play by David Edgar was well complicated, with all sorts of historical characters, done up in drag most of ‘em, chattering on about different bits of the Christian Bible and which English word they should use for which Hebrew, Latin or Greek one. This was a hastily summoned meeting of several of the important members of the translation committee (who were 54 men in total) with the Bishop of Ely (at his London residence apparently) to finalise the last few controversial verses of the new King James Bible. It was hard to follow and a little dry at times, but as we learned in the post-show session, David Edgar had likened this bit to The West Wing, where no quarter is given to the uninitiated audience, and characters talk freely and fast in full blown jargon until we catch up. Fortunately there was also some humour to keep us going, mainly through the political aspects of the different choices, and with the Bishop refusing to put in an appearance for a while (busy praying) the stage gradually cleared so that we could savour some discussions between just two or three characters at a time. Much easier to follow, and now I felt I was getting a handle on the debates. A lot was at stake, literally in the case of the Protestant Martyrs burned by Queen Mary, and it was enlightening to see such passions involved in what to us is now a very abstruse and academic subject.
This first scene was set in London in 1610. The next scene took us to Flanders in 1536, while the third scene, set in Yorkshire in 1586, bridged the gap between then and 1610, to which we returned for the final scenes. For Flanders, a small square platform rose up from the bowels of the stage, containing a table and chair, a stool, an unlit stove, and William Tyndale. This was Tyndale’s prison cell, and as he was due to be executed very soon, a Catholic priest had been sent to persuade him to recant his ‘heretical’ views, particularly those relating to his translation of the Bible into English. He refused, and in his heartfelt urging of the importance of a Bible that a ploughboy could read for himself, he converted the young priest to his way of thinking. As a result, Tyndale’s translations of several more books of the Old Testament were rescued by the priest, just in the nick of time. The guard, helpfully setting a fire in the hitherto unused stove, was planning to use Tyndale’s work as kindling; the priest deftly substituted his own now worthless papers about Tyndale’s ‘crimes’, and secured the precious translations for posterity.
They had one minor problem with this scene when the candle, blown out to distract the guard, unhelpfully went out a second time before its cue, but never mind. I did find the long opening section of this scene a bit too gloomy, in terms of the lighting rather than the mood, but I appreciate it’s a tough call when Tyndale’s main complaint is that he hasn’t been allowed any artificial light in his cell, thereby hindering his work. They had to give us a lot of information at the start of this scene, to establish who was who, when, what had happened, etc., and on the whole this worked OK, although I was surprised that Tyndale had to explain what the Pentateuch was to a priest. However I know a lot of that was to explain it to the audience, and I’m sure many of them were grateful for that. Oliver Ford Davies explained at the post-show that with David Edgar, you had to keep pushing him to explain things so the audience can follow what’s going on. He’s worked with David on a number of plays now, so he spoke from experience, and with feeling.
The next scene, in Yorkshire, is set during Elizabeth’s reign, and shows the visit of a group of clergy to a small church which does not appear to have done everything it could to remove all traces of Popery. There are still stained glass windows, pictures of saints have been reapplied to the whitewashed panels within the building (intruders, apparently) and there’s no record of the disposal of the gold chalice or some ornate vestments. The visiting group have the authority to punish the churchwarden for these offences, and one chap, a clerk, is just about to smash the windows when a local lord and his wife turn up and try to put a stop to it. It doesn’t help that this Lord isn’t as familiar with the Ten Commandments and Articles of Faith of the Church of England as he ought to be to take Communion, but at least he distracts the clerk from his mission of destruction. With some stiff warnings to the errant churchwarden, and his promise to get rid of the remaining Catholic accoutrements, the group is relatively satisfied with their work.
At the start of this scene, the young priest from Tyndale’s cell met the Archdeacon who leads the visiting group, and after a little while I realised this was the same man at two stages in his career. The archdeacon used Tyndale’s very words when expounding on the necessary changes to religious practices, and it was very interesting to see that, despite being ignored and rejected during his lifetime, Tyndale’s approach had finally become the accepted norm in England. During the course of this scene, we also get to see a discussion between the clerk, a rampant Puritan, and the Chaplain, who turns out to be a younger version of the Bishop of Ely – this is how the scenes bridge between the time zones. I didn’t follow all of their conversation, but I did gather that the Puritans were keen to disassociate themselves from the ‘impure’ in society (judge not, least ye be judged?) and the chaplain was strongly against that idea, seeing the divisions it would cause. In the second half, which is all set in London, we get flashbacks to this earlier time, with the clerk now in chains being visited by the chaplain, who has been given the same task as the young priest in the second scene – get the man to confess to save his soul. It’s not entirely clear, but it seems that the Bishop of Ely is full of guilt over his treatment of this man, whom he may have betrayed to the authorities, and whose fate he almost seems to relish. To return to the end of this third scene, the chaplain buys the chalice off the churchwarden, claiming that he can get a better price for it in York than the churchwarden could get locally, and then as the Bishop comes on stage for the end of the first half (we have covered a lot of ground, haven’t we?) passes the chalice to him.
The second half begins with the Bishop at prayer, yet again, kneeling at the altar at the back of the stage. Samuel Ward, one of the translators with a serious concern about allowing any hint of Catholic terminology into the King James Version, brings on a pile of books, a pile which he’d taken from the Bishop’s servant to take to the Bishop at the end of the first scene, another nice link. They have another chat about the choices facing them; the Bishop just wants to wash his hands of the whole thing and leave the decisions to others, while Ward is vociferous in his convictions about how a number of the verses should be translated.
Then things get a little more complicated. After Ward leaves, the Bishop still wants help with the situation, and suddenly hears a voice speaking to him. A moment or two later, Tyndale (the ghost of) walks on stage, and there follows a most entertaining conversation between the two men, with the Bishop bringing Tyndale up to date on the rash of English Bibles since his time (and even an officially approved one during Tyndale’s last year on earth!) and Tyndale having a good old rant about how much of the Catholic tradition is still flourishing in the ostensibly Protestant Church of England. It really brought home both how much of Tyndale’s battle had been won and how much had been lost.
During their conversation, we see the flashback to the younger version of the Bishop, visiting the clerk in prison, and when that finishes Tyndale has gone and the translators have turned up. Tyndale’s dictation to the Bishop, resolving the contested verses, is seized upon by the rest of the committee members as giving them the finality they need. Unfortunately the paper gets blotted with ink (the Bishop being clumsy) and they can’t read it all.
Prince Henry turns up, the Prince of Wales, with his younger brother Charles, the future king. With Henry taking charge of the discussion, the decisions are made surprisingly quickly for once, and the resulting hodgepodge, which includes the classic ‘swords into ploughshares’, is quickly taken to the printers. With the departure of the Royal entourage and most of the committee members, the Bishop has a change of heart, and accepts his servant’s offer to write a letter at his dictation to the Archbishop of Canterbury to suggest the revisions may themselves need to be revised. His servant, a woman who was brought up on the English Bible and the stories of the martyrs – her grandmother was one of those burned as a heretic in Mary’s reign – does the writing OK, but she gets very upset at the idea of changing the word of God. Her fanatical zeal for leaving things as they are (in which case the Bible she adores would still be in Latin, if not Hebrew) is terrifying, and gives a clear link to some of the religious issues facing us today, where a little learning coupled with passionate beliefs can have horrific results. However, she does agree to take the letter, and after she leaves, the Bishop starts looking up the sources for some lines from Genesis. Tyndale makes a handy reappearance to help him, and the play finishes with these men facing each other over the texts on the table.
Although I found it hard going at the start, once we got into Tyndale’s story it all flowed much better. The humour was lovely, and there was lots of it. I felt for the poor folk in Yorkshire; the Lord’s wife expressed the difficulty so many people had when they were told to worship one way, then it was changed, then changed back again, and yet again. They just wanted to be left in peace to do things the way they’d always done them. The linking of the scenes with the younger and older versions of characters was nicely done, and again the author hasn’t taken sides in this debate, just shown us the sort of things that went on to increase our understanding; we can all make up our own minds about the issues, of course.
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The crucial aspect of the whole piece is the way that Tyndale (right) emphasises the heart rather than the head; this stops it being just an intellectual debate which could have become very boring. I found I could relate to the characters and their situations, and it left me feeling I understood more of that period and the huge importance placed on theological ideas. Earthly kingdoms were at risk, never mind heavenly ones. I hadn’t realised how much I expected to hear the King James Version, and how odd some of the others sounded, although I found I preferred some of the alternatives on offer and I have a sense of liberation now that I don’t have to take any translation as gospel!
The set was pretty impressive, making the Swan feel very much like a church for most of the performance. There were carved arches with central double doors screening off the rear of the stage; these were dressed differently for the different locations. Four large circular candelabras were lit at one point, and apart from the platform for scene two there were tables and chairs brought on and off as needed. The costumes were period – this led to one approving comment from a member of the audience later – and there was music between scenes. The singers were good, but there was a little too much dissonance in the music for me.
The performances were all excellent, especially those of the two central characters, Tyndale (Stephen Boxer) and the Bishop of Ely (Oliver Ford Davies). Almost the entire cast came out for the post-show, and there were some very good questions again tonight. The cast had eleven weeks for rehearsals, but this was split between two plays, so they had to move pretty sharpish from one rehearsal room to the other at times. They covered the difficulty of the massive amounts of exposition in the play, not to mention the relatively undramatic nature of the story, and they did a lot of research themselves into various related subjects. Jodie McNee, who played the Bishop’s servant Mary, researched the Protestant Martyrs, and discovered the story of a plough girl who was burned as a heretic. With Tyndale’s emphasis on ploughboys being able to read the word of God, this girl’s story was added to the script during Mary’s passionate speech at the end of the first scene.
There was a lot more that I don’t remember now, but it was a thoughtful discussion with plenty of humour, as was the play. Having slept on it, I reckon this is such a detailed piece of work that it really needs to be seen at least twice to fully appreciate it; good job we’ve already booked.
© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me