The King James Bible is considered a masterpiece for its use of the English language, but how it got that way is a story fraught with dissenting factions and burning heretics.
British playwright David Edgar’s 2011 “Written on the Heart,” tells the back story of this most widely known translation of the Christian Bible through the main figures responsible for it. Burning Coal Theatre’s production boasts a talented cast of 24 and an impressive physical staging, but can’t fully conquer the often un-dramatic and difficult-to-follow script.
The story’s key elements are undeniably intriguing. Theologian William Tyndale defied church law by translating much of the Bible into English in the early 1500s, but was arrested and executed in 1536 for doing so. Subsequent official attempts weren’t satisfactory because of partisan tweaks in meanings.
To settle things, King James I commissioned 54 scholars, led by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, to fashion a translation acceptable to all. Over the next seven years, there was still much contention over word choices before the 1611 first printing.
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Director Jerome Davis gets admirable precision from his cast. E.D. Intemann’s striking cathedral arches and Katy Werlin’s clever mix of period and contemporary costuming are enhanced by lighting designer Matthew Adelson’s shadows and hues.
Edgar’s best work comes in two extended scenes. In Act I, Tyndale (John Allore) is visited in his Brussels prison cell by a young priest (Sean Wellington) who’s come there to get Tyndale to repent but ends up being convinced to smuggle Tyndale’s translations across to England. In Act II, Andrewes (George Jack), worrying over bringing committee members together, is visited by Tyndale’s spirit, resulting in an exhilarating contest of wills over what words best convey the text’s true meaning. Tyndale wants direct language for the common man; Andrewes has to mollify those wanting magisterial flourish and poetic phrasing.
Unfortunately, the other scenes are dense with multiple characters, heavy theological discussions and confusing location shifts. Much of Edgar’s dialogue is informational rather than dramatic, attempting too much history for those unfamiliar with it.
For maximum enjoyment, bone up at home on the subject’s background or arrive early enough to read dramaturg Marshall Botvinick’s excellent historical overview and the concise character analyses in the actors’ biographical listings.
What: “Written on the Heart”
Where: Burning Coal Theatre, 224 Polk St., Raleigh
When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 10, 15-17; 2 p.m. Dec. 11, 18
Tickets: $25 (seniors $20; students/military/all Thursdays $15)
Info: 919-834-4001 or burningcoal.org