In the Beginning, Westminster Abbey, London

There was nothing lost in translation
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The Independent Culture

When I heard about In the Beginning, a one-off show involving actors delivering chunks of the King James Bible, as a celebration the book's 400th anniversary in, of all places, Westminster Abbey, it struck me as just a little too un-counter-intuitive.

However, I had not reckoned on the fact that the begetter (in the Biblical sense) of this show is, rather surprisingly, the Bush Theatre. An established church – and the site of the coronation of all but two of our monarchs – is not the first place where you'd expect to find this radical (and mostly anti-establishment) fringe theatre playing hookey. I wish I could say that a strange and striking chemical reaction occurred as a result of this meeting of seemingly incongruous elements. But the evening, while very enjoyable and (in one sense at least) always moving, was very slightly frustrating in its rather sedate restraint.

Billed as "a creative tribute to both the book and the building", In the Beginning honoured each part of that contract. Separated into parties of six and chaperoned by a thesp-narrator, the audience were sent off on a selective guided tour of the Abbey, including parts normally closed to the public. Rather like Alice running into Humpty Dumpty and the White Knight, you encountered some extremely gifted and (to theatre-goers) well-known actors at each port of call. It was, throughout, a pleasure to hear the rhythms and the cadences that have entered the blood-stream of our language because of this particular biblical translation spoken with such controlled passion, immediacy, and alertness to its rhetorical strengths.

Sometimes, there was a calculatedly perfect congruence between the location and the performed passage, as when Michelle Terry, fresh from her well-deserved Olivier win for Best Supporting actress, stood by the poppy-rimmed tomb of the Unknown Warrior, and almost moved one to tears with her levelly fervent reading of John 15: 1-14: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends". Sometimes, the particular architectural setting gave a beautiful further boost the text as when Sharon Small, with a lovely faint touch of impishness, read about the creation of the firmament under a low ceiling of golden-star-fretted blue. And sometimes, there was a welcome touch of dissonance as when Christopher Eccleston, clad like all the performers in smart-casual black subfusc, read from Exodus 9: 1-13 standing on front of the memorial to William Wilberforce, the great anti-slavery campaigner: "Let my people go, that they may serve me". Wilberforce was not as prone to favouritism as the Old Testament God of the Hebrew was in respect of oppressed peoples.

We finally fetched up in the Jerusalem chamber where, 400 years ago to the day, the 50 scholars (to whom we owe an immeasurable debt) read aloud the final revision. Our thanks to them – and (more mutedly) to directors Christopher Haydon and Josie Rourke; the Rev Dr James Hawkey who made the selection, the performers, and playwright Nick Payne who put the whole thing together.

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