Belief walks in from the wings.

Written for the Church Times

In the spotlight: Messianic John (Trystan Gravelle), centre, with Stephen (Danny Webb) and Ruth (Geral­dine James) in the National Theatre production of 13  NATIONAL THEATRE/MARC BRENNER

“I HAVE always thought that the theatre is a kind of surrogate reli­gion,” The Guardian’s longest-standing theatre critic, Michael Billing­ton, says. “It has its disciples and its adherents.” He’s laughing, but we both know that there is some truth in this.

Western theatre is rooted in the miracle and morality plays of the 13th century; so religion and the stage have long been entwined. Billing­ton, per­haps one of theatre’s most devoted disciples, is not alone in seeing paral­lels between the rituals and roles of church and theatre.

For the new incoming artistic dir­ector of the Donmar Warehouse, in Covent Garden, London, Josie Rourke, her love of theatre was fuelled by her Roman Catholic up­bringing. “[It] is born from hours and hours spent in church. . . I read in church as a child, and the act of reading out loud and listening to others read out loud pro­foundly influenced me.” Her journey into storytelling began with perhaps the greatest story of all, that in the Bible.

Interpreting faith: right, left to right: William Tyndale (Stephen Boxer) and Lancelot Andrewes (Oliver Forde Davies) wrestle with the Bible in Written on the Heart

This influence works both ways; some find that their love of theatre develops into an appreciation of the rites of faith. This was certainly the case for my father, who started out training as a theatre director and ended up as the Bishop of Hertford.

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Review: Sixty-Six Books

Written for Whats On Stage

If this first 24-hour performance of Sixty-Six Books felt like a pilgrimage for those of us who witnessed every second, it must have seemed even more so for the team at the Bush Theatre. After three years of planning Josie Rourke and her crew have produced not only the rebirth of a religious text but the rebirth of a theatre.

In this inaugural performance in their new library space, 66 writers have created contemporary responses to the books of the King James Bible, this year celebrating its 400th anniversary. The scope of their ambition is astonishing with the Bush gathering together one of the richest artistic ensembles in decades.

Neil LaBute sits side by side with Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and there’s something magical about seeing Juliet Stevenson perform for ten minutes at 2:45am in the morning or watching Billy Bragg strumming the sunshine in around dawn.

Sixty-Six Books is a rich tapestry of literature that mirrors the Bible both in its brilliance and opaqueness. From Jeanette Winterson’s Godblog (starring Catherine Tate as God, a wryly Jewish dame from the Bronx who declares magnificently “In the beginning there was the Tweet.”) to Kate Mosse’s apocalyptic Endpapers, all human life is here with family at its heart.

Very foolishly I never realised the Bible focuses so strongly on parent child relationships;Sixty-Six Books opens the eyes to the human connection within this Christian text.

The event makes you look at the Bible afresh but sometimes it’s necessary to shrug off attempts to place the original over its modern reincarnation. The best responses are those that only echo their Aramaic counterpoints; stories like Fugitive Motel, that break off into different directions or scenes like The Loss of All Things that bring a new twist or make a contemporary comment.

Responses range from the short and sweet to verbose 30 minute solo pieces, from comedy sketches to intense provocations. Music plays a glorious, if sporadic part, particularly in Kwame Kwei-Armah’s When We Praise. When Salena Godden replaces ‘God’ with ‘story’ in The Chronicles a genuine moment of transcendence occurs.

Perhaps there is too much reliance on monologues and spoken word third person retellings, but the stories being told feel important and the performances without exception all potently committed.

For the next two weeks you can see several different groupings of these texts. But whether you attend an eight-book session for one night at the Bush, experience its 12-hour run at Westminster Abbey or tackle the last 24-hour marathon at the end, you will be engaging in something that is not simply a theatrical production but an epic event.

Sixty-Six Books is an incredible achievement and a one off experience that it would be sacrilegious to miss.

For listings information go here.