Burning Coal Theatre Company has taken on the American premiere of David Edgar's play Written on the Heart, a study of how the King James Version of the Bible was translated from the Hebrew into English. The work is a gargantuan undertaking, being a celebration of 400 years of the King James Version – this has been the go-to text for the Bible and its language. However, this translation was by no means an easy feat. When attempting to finalize the English translation, it took 54 religious clerics over six years to finally agree upon a text, chiefly because every single word of text was debated and argued over by different sects of the Church.
The play covers several different locales and dates, the two principal settings being the home of Lancelot Andrewes, the Bishop of Ely (pronounced EE-lee) in London in 1610, and a prison cell in Brussels in 1536, almost 75 years earlier. Directed by Jerome Davis, Written on the Heart is presented by a full two-dozen cast members that portray a range of characters from the highest Bishops of the English Church to the lowest servant. If twenty-four sounds a trifle large for a cast, there are two reasons for it: First, the full cast comprises a 24-voice choir, which sings SATB (soprano-alto-tenor-bass) a cappella throughout the work. Second, these 24 recreate a total of 33 (!) characters, thus making the play that much more of an undertaking given that several of the actors take on multiple roles.
Davis builds his set simply, using movable set pieces and a backdrop of stylized trees, which form Gothic windows with their branches, a design by ED Intemann. Vocal arrangements are by Ted and Julie Oliver, and the choir was directed by Julie Oliver. Choreography – an absolute must with so large a cast – was designed by Robin Harris.
As is usually the case with Burning Coal and a David Edgar play, this cast snagged us with the very first word, and from that point on we were rapt. The show opens with a rousing debate amongst the elite of the English Church, who have gathered – yet again – to finalize what was already thought finalized. This debate takes place in language one might have heard in 1610, which is to say, the language of the King James Version of the Bible. While the particulars might have changed over the years, it is clear that this is an old argument that has taken place many times as various sects of the Church debate minutiae of how a word should translate, or to what another word should be changed. The principals in this little debate are George Abbott, Bishop of London (Bruce Ackerman); Samuel Ward, a religious scholar (Gus Allen); John Overall, the Dean of St. Paul's (Fred Corlett); and Sir Henry Saville of Oxford (Alex Donaldson). These gentlemen debate in a lively badinage while they wait for their host, Bishop Andrewes (George Jack), who is at prayers, as he is five hours a day. Also in evidence is a young maidservant, Mary Currer (Kaley Morrison), who is crucial as the voice of the common Englander. Mary has been taught not only to read and write by her father, but also steeped in the study of the Bible; she has lengthy discussions with different members of the Church, but most notably with her employer, Bishop Andrewes himself.
As mentioned above, we jump around a bit in time. Most notably, we move 75 years further into the past, to a Flemish jail cell wherein is held William Tyndale (John Allore), a man who, in defiance of a decree by the Church, has single-handedly taken on the task of translating the Bible into English. Despite the fact that he has done most of his work outside Britain, pages of his manuscripts have been smuggled into England, and the Church has come after him. He finishes what he can of his Unauthorized Version in his cell, working up to the day of his execution, by being burned at the stake, in 1592. Interestingly, he is called upon by a young priest (Sean Wellington) to renounce his heretical translation and beg forgiveness of the Church, which he is loath to do. Thus, his execution takes place as scheduled.
In 1610, Bishop Andrewes is visited by the ghost of Tyndale in his home, prior to the Bishop's meeting with the Church Elders. Andrewes senses Tyndale's presence somewhat alarmedly, but once it is clear that only he can see this apparition, a spirited debate takes place between the two. This causes a once-irresolute Andrewes to come down squarely on Tyndale's side as regards many of the minutiae currently being nitpicked. Many a surprised cleric notes the change, as does Mary; the two have a lengthy discussion, once Lancelot learns of her youthful scholarly exploits.
"Written on the heart" is an actual quote from the King James vernacular; an aged cleric, James Hayes, is cited as flatly stating that, "He who has not love and mercy written on his heart shall never truly come to Christ, though all the angels taught him." It is clear that this staging is a labor of love by all those concerned; it is a clear, honest examination of the many years and many voices involved in arriving at a language, chosen for the people of England, that they may be able to read and understand the teachings of the Bible. Director Davis and a sterling cast bring these words to worthy life, as thought out by men who understood that words have consequences, and the work they would lay down would endure for centuries to come. This is a wonderful Yuletide present; be sure to put it on your Christmas list.
Writen on the Heart continues through Sunday, December 18. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.