Written on the Heart, a review by Dr Peter Buckroyd

Written on the Heart


Although ostensibly about the translation of the King
James Bible in 1611, this new play by David Edgar is really about the
feasibility of being a liberal humanist man of conscience in a setting where
political behaviour is thought to be essential. The main character is Launcelot
Andrews who tries to reconcile the pressure of Puritanism with the continuation
of a church which goes back to recent Catholic times.

Edgar cleverly parallels two stories – that of
Andrews, in his early years trying to enforce the new ecclesiastical order
against the old, and that of William Tyndale, imprisoned and killed for
translating the Bible into English. These two stories are brought together at
the end when Andrews is pressured into adjudicating the final contentious changes
to the 1611 translation and is visited by the ghost of Andrews.

Thrown into this mix is the issue of fundamentalism,
represented by Andrew’s servant, Mary Currer, vigorously played by Jodie McNee.
She may be a servant but she is educated, having been taught to read and write
by her father. She does know her place,
but she has outgrown it and dares to speak her mind to Andrews although she
submits to her master’s authority and bidding at the end of the play.

In the end Edgar suggests that conscience and power
are incompatible. Gordon Brown discovered, too, that principle could not
successfully be chosen against ambition. Andrews refuses to be a contender for
the archbishopric of Canterbury, instead supporting the claim of Bishop Abbot
from the Right. Shades of the Labour party leadership election fiasco?

None of this seems like much of a theatrical
blockbuster for 2011 and yet I found the play gripping on both Preview
occasions I saw it. Director Greg Doran opts frequently for stillness rather
than business and this works because the play stars two of our most outstanding
undersung contemporary actors, Oliver Ford Davies as Andrews and Stephen Boxer
as Tyndale. Ford Davies’s emission of sibilant s sounds and slight incline of
the head speak volumes throughout the play. His body reveals a huge range of
emotion through tiny nuances. His enunciation is brilliantly clear and his
control complete. It is as good as performance – perhaps even more powerful –
than his Lionel in Racing Demon at
the National all those years ago. I found the scene between Andrews and Tyndale
at the end of the play extraordinarily powerful, perhaps because both Ford
Davies and Boxer can understate, too.

The other highlight of the production for me was the
scene between Tyndale and the Young Catholic Priest in the first half. The
latter visits Tyndale ostensibly to save his soul but smuggles the manuscript
of the translated Bible instead so that it can be published as the Rogers
Bible. The scene is daringly staged on a small raised block in the centre of
the stage and in semi-darkness. Neither actor moves very much. Mark Quartley as
the Young Catholic Priest mirrors Boxer’s physical circumspection. Vocally and
physically he is in complete control. It is a wonderful scene.

The music is glorious, Paul Englishby’s old-modern,
catholic-protestant ecclesiastical interludes beautifully sung by Anna Bolton,
Alexandra Saunders, Mitesh Khatri, Matthew Spillett and Lewis Jones.

Cohesion is achieved by the frequent use of the play’s
title and its enigmatic link to love and by the burning of hands in candleflame,
as well as by the passing of the chalice eventually to Andrews and the passing
of Tyndale’s translation into Andrews’s pile of
books. The play is carefully framed by Edgar who places Andrews’s internal
dilemmas at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of the piece and
invites us to wonder whether when Andrews looks out at the audience and asks
‘Who is there?’ he is looking for the spirit of Tyndale or whether we as
observers have some part to play in the political, moral, ethical and spiritual
debate which the play explores.

Left, right, centre, compromise, pragmatism, ambition:
is there the possibility of triangulation or are we heading to disaster? I had
not expected before I went to Written on
the Heart
that I would end up thinking about so many of the issues raised
by Marat/Sade. And both plays, too,
are about words and their potential for multiple meanings and translations. A
brilliant piece of programming.