Scale, ambition and a spirit of collaboration make the inaugural event at the new Bush Theatre, which has moved from its compact warren above an O’Neill’s pub into a gorgeous new building, a former public library next to Shepherd’s Bush Market.
A few words, first, on the new theatre, designed by architect Haworth Tompkins in a mere few months. It is, quite frankly, a brilliant new addition to London’s cultural scene. It has always seemed a miracle that great new plays were tucked into the tiny, dishevelled black box of old. The new theatre, at last, fully befits the work inductive reasoning suggests it will house. Overall, the Bush feels like a halfway-house between the Donmar Warehouse and the Battersea Arts Centre. It has an elegant auditorium similar to that of the former and the latter’s welcoming, homely nature.
The auditorium itself – the natural state of which is perfectly shown off in Amy Cook’s simple, elegant design for Sixty-Six Books – is an open and flexible space that allows the seating to be reconfigured at will. Despite four pillars, which limit capacity in any formation to 144, sightlines are barely an issue. There is plenty of legroom and the work feels like it can breathe, not only for the first time, but better than in most London theatres.
But the real joy is that the Bush doesn’t stop there. The theatre now is now a complex. Its new bar is spacious and cosy, better than those at the Finborough and the Young Vic, not least because it comes with a playtext library and a garden. Behind the auditorium, unseen by audiences, are an office capable of actually fitting the theatre’s staff, a passable rehearsal room and, in due course, proper dressing rooms. All this must feel like a luxury to those who have played sardines above Shepherd’s Bush Green and ought to bring in better work and, given its 125-year lease at peppercorn rent, increased income.
It opens with Sixty-Six Books, a collection of 66 plays by 66 assorted writers drawn from a number of disciplines, each inspired by a book of the Bible and played by a cast of 130, none of whom double up. I can’t think of a better way to open a theatre. The pieces can be viewed together over 24 hours, with another marathon closing the run on 28 October, or in nightly sections.
Of course, the quality varies as widely as the angles of approach taken. Of the 17 I saw, those drawn from the New Testament generally worked better. Perhaps this is down to familiarity – for one is always aware of source material and, where one is unfamiliar with it, the inability to crack the code is frustrating – or perhaps it has to do with the more human focus of the New Testament.
The best of the collection present something present-tense, breaking through the original’s tendency to sit outside of a story as reportage. Some apply an easy and literal filter of modernity, such as Jeanette Winterson’s take on ‘Genesis Godblog’, which casts God as CEO of World.com with Catherine Tate dictating tweets to an angel secretary. Elsewhere Paul talks of taking Christianity viral in Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran’s knowingly Pythonesque Epheseus-Schmepheseus.
Others burrow into the stories with more commitment. Chris Goode’s ‘The Loss of All Things’ (Philippians) finds in St Paul’s activity echoes of a peaceful, but provocative, revolution against an old order, as two gay schoolboys wear down their teacher with passive resistance during his detention. Stella Duffy’s ‘The Book of Ruth’ (and Naomi) humanises the text with an empathetic and emotive version told from inside rather than out. For Leviticus, full of prohibitions and maxims, Caroline Bird explores morality and sin through a woman brain-washed to self-destruction.
Those who seek to dissect rather than dramatise are harder going. Exodus, densely handled by Anne Michaels in ‘The Crossing’, is poetic but tangled, while Neil Bartlett’s fusion of Numbers and a memory of chapel reading is unfollowable without a base understanding of the original. Both suffer from an reliance on spoken text over dramatic dynamic and, in a crowded context of information overload that benefits dilettantism and lightness, neither provide a necessary foothold. For all its faults, Sixty-Six Books is nonetheless a triumphal fanfare to welcome a remarkable new theatre.