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.