Daring to change the word of God.
BIRMINGHAM playwright David Edgar has become an expert on the Bible. As a non-believer he had not planned to make it the focus of his life for the past few months.
But as the author of Written On The Heart, a new Royal Shakespeare Company commission about the creation of the King James Bible 400 years ago, his life took an unexpected turn.
In his research for the play, which opens at The Swan next week, David, who lives in Balsall Heath, learned that the King James Bible, or Authorized Version as it is also known, built strongly on past work.
"It was written by a committee and it wasn't really a translation, it was basically a compilation of the best bits of previous translations.
It was commissioned as a kind of afterthought at a conference which was trying to reconcile the Puritan and more, what we would call, Anglo-Catholic wings of the church. And it was intended to draw a line under the history of the English Reformation - and of course 30 years later the Civil War breaks out.
"So in all respects at that time it was a failure and it was a very odd set-up to create something which has such a reputation."
David, whose previous works for the RSC have included Nicholas Nickleby, Pentecost and The Prisoner's Dilemma, was also keen for the play to show the contradiction between those debating the new Bible and those who had died for daring to translate God's word into English in the past.
"We start in 1610 with a group of rather comfortable clerics who meet together to resolve the finer issues of contention in the Bible translation and none of them are going to die for translating the Bible. In fact, two of them might become Archbishop of Canterbury as a result of their efforts. "And we then flash back to William Tyndale, who was the first translator of the Bible from the original languages and the first translator of the Bible whose work was printed - and who died at the stake as a result. As did two of his successors. Two other translations of the Bible, which were important to our translation of the Bible, were undertaken by people in exile.
''So the play is really about the contrast between the people who originally translated the Bible when translating the Bible into English was a burning offence and the people who very comfortably put together this King James Bible.
"What the play does is challenge these comfortable clerics with the legacy of which they were a part and whether or not they are selling out that legacy.
"People were prepared to die horribly for beliefs which now seem to us quite arcane - whether or not there is a presence of God in the sacrament, whether or not good works get you to Heaven, whether or not Purgatory exists, whether or not anything which isn't in the Bible is idolatrous. These seem to me very unimportant because we are so used to the idea of faith but not obscure points of doctrine.
"Part of this play is to open a window into a world which is quite strange to us but which has produced these extraordinary works of art."
"They certainly didn't set out to produce a literary masterpiece and it didn't sell very well when it came out but in places they have the best versions of verses. They got lots of things right. It has a combination of majesty and simplicity.
"I have Christian friends who berate me and other non-believers who are affectionate towards the King James Bible on the grounds that it is inaccurate and because it is obscure."
David is also interested in the idea of faith.
"I am not a believer but I am interested in belief and one of the interesting things is how belief, whether that belief is in religion or in politics, has common patterns.
One rather obvious one is that people who believe things very strongly are not necessarily the people you want to have round for dinner!" TicketInfo Written on the Heart, Swan Theatre, October 27 to March 10, tickets: 0844 800 1110, www.rsc.org.uk Question of faith: Joseph Kloska as Samuel Ward and Simon Thorp as Sir Henry Saville in rehearsals for Written On The Heart, by Birmingham playwright David Edgar, right.