Living in the third millennium means living in a time where, thanks to the hard work of the late Steve Jobs and the invention of the iPhone, information is literally at our finger tips. The development of online newspapers, not to mention the boom in social media, means that anyone can source information anywhere. Set between the mid-sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, David Edgar and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new production, Written on the Heart, is a far cry from the world of Wifi and 3G. In fact, so much so that attempting to spread information to the masses would no doubt lead one to a gruesome end. However the question for today’s theatregoer is: “What does this have to do with me?”
Written on the Heart marks the four hundredth anniversary of the completion of the King James Bible, the first widely accepted English translation of the Bible. The challenge for Gregory Doran, newly appointed Creative Director of the RSC, was to turn these historical years of great social and papal turmoil into viable and relevant on-stage drama.
One can’t deny the honesty and poignancy shown in Stephen Boxer’s portrayal of the translator William Tyndale. After all, without his efforts the Bible would have remained inaccessible to the working man. It is true that the implications of this translation alongside the invention of the printing press were revolutionary, however for some it will be hard to get excited by a cast of men mostly over the age of 50 discussing idioms for over two hours.
Jodie McNee breathes life into the otherwise stuffy surroundings in her depiction of the lowly maid Mary Currer. McNee delivers an almost laugh-out-loud performance as Mary, who uses her knowledge and wit to out-smart the lecherous holy man, William Laud. It is perhaps through her character that the effect of Tyndale’s toils are best demonstrated; the translation gave the word of God to a whole new demographic, allowing them in this respect to be equal to the aristocracy and clergy.
The play is effective on a visual level; Francis O’Connor’s grand church design is to be marvelled at. The transition of the set according to the year of the scene is perhaps more effective at demonstrating the church’s journey than the text itself. For example the church’s transition from Catholic to Protestant is clear in the removal of grandeur. Moreover the conflict between the church and the monarchy is satisfyingly depicted in the smashing of a stained glassed window.
The development of language is still at the forefront of theatrical investigation, what with the Globe theatre presenting 37 of Shakespeare’s plays in 37 languages. However there is a distinct difference between experimenting with new mediums and presenting its entomological history in a stage production. Somehow the former just seems more exciting. All in all, unless you have a particular interest in the history of the church and the creation of the King James Bible, a two hour discussion of the two may not appeal to everyone.
Image credit: Ellie Kurttz