Sixty-Six Books, Bush Theatre, London
Thursday 20 October 2011
You can't accuse the Bush Theatre of failing to do its bit by the Bible. Back in the spring, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the King James version, it sent audiences off on selective guided tours of Westminster Abbey where they were waylaid by famous actors intoning site-specifically appropriate passages. Now it has gone for broke. Newly housed in the reconverted Old Library on the Uxbridge Road, the theatre has chosen to relaunch itself with a mammoth endeavour in which 66 writers, 23 directors and 130 actors join forces to respond to all 66 books of the King James Bible.
It's a heroic, slightly mad enterprise – and requires a correspondingly valiant, batty stamina of punters who are prepared to stay the course for the 24-hour marathons at weekends. I baled out after the first segment of nine plays, which opens with Catherine Tate's Almighty, who communicates the story of Genesis via Twitter in Jeanette Winterson's flip Godblog. This, then, is a far from comprehensive report. But I feel that I saw enough to make some general deductions.
The least effective pieces forlornly presuppose detailed familiarity with the original. If you haven't recently brushed up on the Book of Joshua, it's hard to make head or tail of Daisy Hasan's convoluted contemporary reworking. By contrast, Neil Bartlett's The Opening of the Mouth is a moving masterclass in how to incorporate the old within the new. Recalling how he read it as the lesson when he was a 13-year-old-boy, a middle-aged gay man reflects on the text of the Balaam and the Ass story, with its sympathy for the under-donkey (so to speak), and contrasts its meaning for him then and now.
One of the loveliest little plays is Stella Duffy's response to the Book of Ruth, a tender, warmly humorous study in resilient sisterhood in which Ruth and her mother-in-law (touchingly played by Nikki Amuka-Bird and Kate Duchene) survive in an alien land through the strength of their unconventional devotion. But it's questionable whether the no-sooner-on-than-off approach dictated by the rapid turnover or the resulting wild variations of tone give such a play room to breathe or the audience sufficient pause for consideration. You can't fault the ambition and audacity of the project, with its range of art forms and contributors (everyone from the Archbishop of Canterbury to Tim Rice), but even an evening-length section, such as I saw, demonstrates certain drawbacks to chronological completism.
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