Who wrote the Bible? As it turns out, 54 people. That, at least, is the number of translators who turned the original Hebrew into the King James Bible of 1611. David Edgar’s “Written on the Heart,” penned for the Royal Shakespeare Company for the Bible’s 400th anniversary, exposes how political this seemingly literary endeavor actually was. Unfortunately, despite uneven attempts by the actors to inject the text with life, there’s so much lumbering historical and religious exposition that only in the shorter second half does information approach drama.
The four-scene play begins and ends in 1610 with Bishop Lancelot Andrews (Oliver Ford Davies) collating all the efforts of his fellow translators and being visited by those who seek last-minute adjustments to suit their political purposes. Most unexpected of these visitors is the unquiet ghost of William Tyndale (Stephen Boxer, finely balancing exasperation and controlled rage).
Translating the Bible into the vernacular represented an assault on the authority of the church and, thereby, the state. Tyndale’s translation and his published opposition to Henry VIII’s first divorce — which led to the abandonment of Catholicism and the foundation of the Church of England — led to his imprisonment and execution in 1536.
But Edgar dramatizes almost none of this: Instead, he presents a flashback scene with Tyndale in prison prior to his death in Flanders. One further expository scene follows, this time 50 years later in a church in Yorkshire, where Queen Elizabeth’s religious zealots are demanding a return to Protestant imagery following the Catholic reign of Mary.
Even though Edgar adds illustrative incident to these scenes, there’s little forward momentum. Black-robed bishops and their entourages stalk about Francis O’Connor’s convincing ecclesiastical settings, aided by lighting designer Tim Mitchell’s shafts of light and Paul Englishby’s Tudor-tinged choral music. But although scores of characters are introduced and cases made, it’s hard to keep track since almost everyone is there to outline a position rather than to have ongoing dramatic life.
Tension finally rears its head in the concluding scene, which takes off because all the debates have finally been aired. Davies signals both weightiness and worry as Bishop Andrew has his crisis of conscience. Yet even this is close to a foregone conclusion since it’s obvious where Edgar’s sympathies lie. Tyndale is blatantly presented as the martyred hero, his arguments for immediate and direct language for “the common people” too obviously winning.
You needn’t go as far as Showtime’s well-dressed/undressed “The Tudors” to make the period’s religious-political power games palatable to contempo audiences. But is it too much to ask that a historical drama engages audiences in something more than acted-out ideological positions?