Don’t mention the crusades: Holy Warriors at Shakespeare’s Globe

Sunday 10th August, 2014

You’d be hard pressed to find a more ambitious building project than Shakespeare’s Globe – lovingly researched and rebuilt using traditional craftspeople (with just a few concessions to modern fire regulations), this space is inviting and impressive.  We can’t believe we’ve waited so long to go, but when we heard about a new play, ‘Holy Warriors’, with an equally ambitious subject matter, this seemed an ideal opportunity.  It’s an epic journey through the crusades which promises to throw light on the modern Middle East – what could possibly go wrong?

The thrust of David Eldridge’s play is that if we fail to remember the past we are condemned to repeat it.  Thus we are urged to learn from history, although in this case the premise of the play seems to be that Richard I should accept a fair portion of the blame.  In a clever conceit, following his death and failure to capture Jerusalem, Richard is found in purgatory with his mother, and they while away the time by speculating on what might have been if he had taken some different decisions.  It seems there’s no escape from a mother’s ‘friendly’ guidance, even in death, but given she is the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine (known by us chiefly from her appearance in James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter), what else can you expect?  There follows a re-run of events which ends again in stalemate, and Richard refuses to accept an offer to enter Jerusalem as a pilgrim rather than a conqueror.  Men are just too proud, Eleanor proclaims.

It is not for us to judge ‘Holy Warriors’ as a historical treatise, although to our untutored eyes it seems a little simplistic, but can we judge it as a drama?  The main problem is that there is very little drama to judge – the piece feels like a historical essay with ideas rather than dialogue put into the mouths of historical figures – too much talk and comparatively little action.  The plot was hard to follow with indigestible chunks of exposition and without visual cues and much existing knowledge of the subject we were struggling to stay engaged.  However, we wonder whether somebody with a thorough enough knowledge of the subject would gain much insight from the play.

However, we did find some of the choices clichéd, and spotted a few ‘sins’ which contravened our list of theatrical holy commandments:

*  Perhaps this will seem peevish given the title, but there was an over-emphasis on religion and Eldridge seems too keen to take the religious motivations of his characters at face value.  There was an awful lot of incense (quite a feat in an open-air theatre), and chanting on both sides, and we felt as though we were being presented with the trappings of religion and an ‘atmosphere’ of reverence without digging beneath the surface.

*  Use of modern dress out of context.  There was no need to dress King Richard and Saladin like modern desert warriors given the second part of the play is a fantasy sequence, and the visual impact does not add anything.  It promises insights it does not deliver, quite apart from being a well-worn cliché in productions of Shakespeare’s own history plays.

*  Cameo appearances by historical figures.  It would have been nice if Eldridge had resisted the temptation to neatly tie up the loose ends with speeches from both George Bushes and Tony Blair, even if George Bush Junior brought it on himself by referring a ‘crusade’ against terrorism following 9/11.  Moreover, including TE Lawrence and Golda Meyer as bit players in this play just goes to emphasis what an impossible task it would be to give a fair account of the last millenium of Middle Eastern Politics in a couple of hours.

The company does brilliantly well in bringing so many different groups of people and individual characters to life, and as Richard the I, John Hopkins really captures the easy arrogance of a King and makes a convincing miliary leader.  He is a man of action, not a thinker, and Hopkins draws us in to make this flawed character strangely likeable.  Alexander Siddig was an impressive Prince Feisal opposite Ralph Fiennes’ TE Lawrence in the TV film ‘A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia’, so it seems particularly fitting that he should take on Saladin at the Globe.  He brings a more ethereal presence to the stage, clearly a man of principle and a philosopher, although violence is never far from the surface.

‘Holy Warriors’ is billed as sweeping and kaleidoscopic, and we certainly can’t argue with that – but is a kaleidoscope the best instrument – unfocused and ever-shifting flashes of colour and light create spectacle, but not insight, and at times we felt as though we were witnessing a bizarre stage version of ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’.  It is not enough simply to put these historical figures on the stage – they have to earn their place.

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