Friday, 27 April 2012

Written on the Heart - Duchess Theatre, Thursday 26th April 2012

The Word of God...something to die for?

Two men, across an 80-year divide, translate the word of God into English. For one, it means death at the stake. For the other, an archbishop's mitre...

After almost a century of unrest, the King James Bible was intended to end the violent upheavals of the English reformation. But deep-seated conflicts force a leading translator to confront the betrayal of his youthful religious ideals.
George Abbot, Bishop of London - Bruce Alexander
William Tyndale - Stephen Boxer
Richard Thompson/William Laud -  Paul Chahidi
Lancelot Andrewes, Bishop of Ely - Oliver Ford Davies
Laurence Chaderton/Archdeacon - James Hayes
John Overall - Jim Hooper
Samuel Ward - Joseph Kloska
Chaplain - Jamie Ballard
Young Catholic Priest - Mark Quartley
Henry, Prince of Wales Sam Marks
Sir Henry Saville/Squire - Simon Thorp
Lady Alletta Carey/Squire's Wife - Annette McLaughlin
Mary Culler - Jodie McNee

Creative team
Author - David Edgar
Director - Gregory Doran
Designer - Francis O'Connor
Lighting - Tim Mitchell
Music - Paul Englishby
Sound - Jonathan Ruddick

There was excitement aplenty at NTWEW when it transpired that Him Indoors, in 40-odd years of theatre-going (some of them very odd going indeed), had never been to see a show at the Duchess Theatre. Bought tickets for other people to see shows there, yes, and ambled past it swinging a silver-topped cane on many a foggy, gaslit evening while searching for prostitutes (oh no, that’s the plot of Jekyll and Hyde, sorry) but never actually been inside. It was all a poor, flu-ridden reviewer could do from preventing him from hurling himself at the doors and screaming “Let me in! My theatre-going life is but a moment away from being totally complete!”. What we found on the other side of the doors was a theatre which, for once, seems to justify the compulsory “restoration levy” practically every theatre owner in the land charges these days in an attempt to wring more money out of the theatre-going public, rather than put their hands in their pockets and pay for the upkeep of their own property. Its like charging people for coming into your own house because the friction of their bum on your sofa will make the fabric wear out quicker. Because the last time the Duchess was restored was probably just before the Restoration. If you are a fan of textured artex, painted in a nice grubby beige and contrasting nicely with a hideous maroon carpet covered in raspberry pink Edwardian-style foliage swirls and black gloss paint on the woodwork, interspersed with a couple of 30s style downlighters, then head on down to the Duchess before the restorers get there. Add to that some pile-inducingly uncomfortable seating in threadbare crimson plush, set so low that your knees practically obscure the stage and from which the vast majority of your elderly audience are going to be unable to get up without the aid of some kind of block and tackle affair installed in the rafters, and you will be marching on the Box Office and begging them to max out your credit card at B&Q. Still, so far, all those 80 pences (yes, that nice Mr. Osbourne takes 20 pence of every Restoration Pound) have, so far, resulted in “a dazzling new set of expanded lavatories” (rather than “expanding lavatories” as Him Indoors misheard me read from the programme. Mind you, expanding lavatories do sound as if they might be fun and I think we should start demanding expanding lavatories in every theatre from now on). That the lavatories are indeed dazzling was confirmed by one old biddy on the way out, who turned to her companion and quavered “I didn’t expect that from the toilets, did you?” The mind truly boggles - perhaps they were expanding lavatories after all. Apparently “over £350,000 has just been spent in much-needed upgrading” of the grungy old Duchess. Has anyone thought to ask Camilla for a donation? “Polyfilla sponsored by the Duchess of Cornwall’s make-up bag”. Perhaps to smooth over some of that textured Artex. From one grungy old Duchess to another.

Him Indoors was also highly excited that one of his particular blue-eyed boys, Gregory Doran, was directing, and that Oliver Ford-Davies, who seems to have cornered the market as far as whiskery old clergymen is concerned, was playing….er…. a whiskery old clergyman. Me, I was just pleased to be able to get out of the rain (Readallabaht it! Wettest drought since hosepipe ban was ordered! Whole families of ducks swept to their doom in thunderstorm!), sit down and stop coughing for a bit, although throughout the play so much stage smoke is used that I got through an entire packet of Lockets and at one point nearly coughed up a lung. As we were in the second row, the actors must have been well pleased. I think they were even less pleased when a much-rained-on clergyman complained that he had “practically had to swim here all the way from Canterbury”, prompting one wag in the row behind to pipe up “I know how you feel”.

My god, this is a dreary play. Its another play about the translating of the Bible into English by William Tyndale, this time using a time-travel device so that we flick between 1536, when Tyndale made his translation, 1586 when church reforms were starting to bite and 1610 when a conclave of whiskery old clergymen meet to translate his translation, arguing seemingly endlessly and pointlessly about whether “church” should be changed to “congregation”, “flock” into “fold”, “tyrants” into “giants” and for all that anyone really gives a damn “delectable” into “delicious”. Tyndale’s ghost appears to the Bishop of Ely at a moment of schism. And that, really, is all that happens. I love words, linguistics and the growth of language but found this play incredibly dull and "worthy" (in its worst sense"). 2 1/2 hours is an incredibly long time to sit and watch people pontificate (even though its beautifully directed pontification). What promised to be a refreshing, thought provoking change from airheaded musicals turned into a leaden diatribe on a subject which will leave the vast majority of people unmoved.  The audience briefly wake upon the rare occasion that something actually happens, and then return to their word-surfeited slumber. The rest of it is weary speechifying about a book of fairy stories. I don’t deny that Tyndale’s translation was a crucial and important development in the freedom of religious expression and thought, and that it was A Very Good Thing that the humblest ploughman could read the word of God in plain English. But I eventually stopped hoping that something would actually happen and began to drown in the sea of words pouring off the stage out of the mouths of a troop of largely interchangeable clergymen.

I also managed to completely miss a major plot device – one of the characters in the 1586 section reappears in 1610, having grown in the intervening years from a young, slim, average-height redhead into an old, tall, well-built whiskery and white-haired old bishop. Well, how was I to know? His young self is identified in the programme as “Chaplain”, his older self as “Lancelot Andrews, Bishop of Ely”, and the two actors don’t even look like each other. Apparently this device is used twice, although at least this time the young “Archdeacon” and the older “Laurence Chaderton” are at least played by the same person, with the helpful addition of a white whiskery beard to mark the progress of time. I missed that, too. So no wonder I got confused. When during the interval I expressed my confusion and was rounded on by Him Indoors and derided as “allegedly the intelligent one” I think I more or less gave up and amused myself by looking at the scenery. Which is indeed very pretty. I also played “Spot the Direction” for quite a while and can confirm that there is indeed lots of direction and most of it is very good. Mr. Doran has done marvels with reams of seriously dreary text and turned it into Very Well Directed Dreary Text, mainly out of sheer necessity because of action there is very, very little. Someone climbs a ladder and smashes a stained-glass window at one point and the audience is briefly roused from its slumber but the character (shaven-headed so we know he is a thug) stays up the ladder while reams of speechifying eddy round the bottom rungs like a turgid sea, and then at the very end a glittery Prince of Wales strides on in outrageous Jacobean trunks, peach lycra tights and high heels which the actor hasn’t yet got used to as a Deus ex machina to wrap up the end all nice and pat, but that’s about it.

The rest is just words, although there is a worryingly intense kitchenmaid who, for all her literacy and apparent speed-writing skill with an inkpot and feather quill, would never have been allowed to serve the Bishop of Ely looking like she had just cleaned a year’s worth of dripping off the one of the scullions. There’s also a character called John Overall who, sadly, fails to totter on with a tray of home-made macaroons and a very pretty, floppy-haired beardy boy in Puritan grey who rekindled my idea for Period Costume Pornography (suggestions on a postcard, please). Oh yes, and expanded lavatories. But otherwise it can only be Written on the Heart if you use a very big heart and very small letters indeed.

What the critics said (most of them said it before the play transferred to London):

Phenomenonly dreary interview with the phenomenonly dreary author of this phenomenonly dreary play:

No comments:

Post a Comment

These are my opinions. I am entitled to them. As you are to yours. If you are going to respond to my opinions, at least make your responses worthwile. Vitriol is pointless. And more importantly, won't get published - so you'll be shouting in the dark.