We've been here before with David Edgar, the British playwright that Burning Coal Theatre Company has repeatedly championed since its inaugural season eighteen years ago. In many of Edgar's works, characters in the direst straits turn to language to defuse explosive situations or stop bloodshed already begun. That's the case again in WRITTEN ON THE HEART, a history of the English Reformation, commissioned in 2011 for the four-hundredth anniversary of the King James Bible. Its American premiere is currently underway courtesy of Burning Coal.
In Edgar's The Shape of the Table and The Prisoner's Dilemma, negotiators work against time, and without a political safety net, to construct a verbal accord that might permit the peaceful transition of power in the former Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia after the fall of the Soviet Union. A delicate dance of definitions and corrections takes place among ethnic factions in Pentecost, as politically freighted euphemisms are slowly, cautiously exchanged for terms more accurate—and, at times, more blunt. Edgar's characters labor, word by word, to construct a common tongue in which they can communicate their needs and address their grievances. The wrong term at the wrong time can shatter the prospects for peaceful cohabitation and cooperation.
In Written on the Heart, Edgar takes us to a similar moment in England in 1610. For six years, fifty-four scholars have labored at the behest of James I on what will become a cornerstone of Western literature: the King James Bible. But at this stage of its translation, words still divide theologians. Should Matthew 16:18 read "on this rock I shall build my church" or "my congregation"? Should Titus 1:5 refer to priests or elders? The differences may seem small, but, in a country that has been rocked for eighty years by monarchs' attempts to break away from the Roman Catholic Church, they have geopolitical as well as ecclesiastical significance. Adding to the challenge are the factions growing within English Christianity. Separatists who believe that the Reformation hasn't worked are secretly separating from the Church of England. And, within the church, ecclesiasts like John Overall, the dean of St. Paul's Cathedral (an agitated Fred Corlett), believe the Reformation has gone too far, while Puritans like Samuel Ward (an earnest Gus Allen) believe it hasn't gone far enough. Depending upon who finds favor with the throne, state-enforced laws of worship change, sometimes radically, every few years.
The moment calls for a theological and political diplomat in a place of high power. Edgar finds one in Lancelot Andrewes, the Bishop of Ely. In this production, under Jerome Davis's direction, George Jack is a shrewd, if guileless, mediator, treading a verbal minefield in an effort to hold together a fragmenting faith. But flashbacks reveal that Andrewes's moderation has come at a price, after his early days as something more like an inquisitor. Areon Mobasher plays the darker notes of an earlier Andrewes whose actions effectively condemned those who held differing religious views.
Though we don't entirely buy the older Andrewes's anguish when he repeatedly repents for this, we're charmed when he is upbraided by the lively ghost of William Tyndale (an irascible John Allore). Tyndale's early English translation of scripture formed much of the basis for the King James Bible, but because he did the work while it was still forbidden, he was killed for it in 1536. Tyndale criticizes Andrewes for elevated language that "sacrifice(s) the meaning for the music" of the words and for ceremonial trappings that abolish "the popish doctrine but kept its practices," though they find a sublime moment of accord in reading the Beatitudes.
At times, the playwright and director both seem rushed, glossing over the semantic chasms between words, and later, two royal children suddenly appear to expedite the resolution. But the pageant retains gravitas on E.D. Intemann's evocative set of arching pipes and screens. Katy Werlin's thoughtful costumes literally place the scriptures on the characters' bodies. And Ted and Julie Oliver's arrangements of new, alternative hymns by Regina Spektor, Pink, U2, and Patti Smith give strange savor to the struggles depicted in this challenging, insightful work.