David Eldridge’s new play is certainly ambitious. With a first act devoted to the twelfth-century Third Crusade, the second comes up-to-date, packing in another 900 years. The first act seems to slowly get nowhere, the second offers continuous bombardment.
For anyone with a modern tele-trained attention span and lacking an encyclopaedic knowledge of history, politics and military strategy, it's a bit like a crash course in all of them. Fortunately you don’t have to sit an examination before you leave.
James Dacre’s production opens magnificently as the audience assembles before the play itself begins. Above a stage cloth painted with a picture of Jerusalem like those on medieval maps hang huge censers and a great golden cross inset with icons, which will alter its position through the play according to location and which religious group has precedence.
Around the pillars which support the heavens are many candles. A golden platform juts from the Globe’s elaborate painted scene and below it through the tiring house doors comes a procession of white-robed monks (or are they Moslem religious?) in never-ending succession to the solemn sonorities of Jena Langer’s score, played by onstage musicians. It is impressive.
The play proper begins with Moslem leader Saladin (Alexander Siddig) white-clad and jewelled in scimitar wielding exercise in recovery from a conference with his sons Az-Zahir (Satya Bhabha) and Imal al-Din (Kammyu Darweish) to discuss strategy and delegate authority. It switches to Richard the Lionheart (John Hopkins) and the European camp with the death of the old pope on hearing of the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin and the calling for a crusade by the next pontiff.
We see more of the friction between the crusade’s leaders, Richard and French King Philip (Jolyon Coy), than battle action, but there is an outline of the course of the crusade, abandoned without achieving Jerusalem before jumping ahead to Richard’s death.
The second act has Richard stuck in purgatory or limbo asking his mother what went wrong and what has happened. This brings a parade of personalities that have planned and plotted the future of Jerusalem and the Middle East. They are remarkably easy to identify from Napoleon to Golda Meir, Chaim Weizmann to King Feisal, Ben Gurion to George Bush and Lawrence of Arabia to Tony Blair.
The Christian crusaders had no thought for the Jews, but “next year in Jerusalem” is the phrase that Jews repeat as part of the Yom Kippur service and when celebrating Passover. Driven out first by Babylon and then by the Romans, they were tolerated by Islamic rulers and sought increasingly to return in the twentieth century.
A theatrical equivalent of a Powerpoint or slide show presentation, that seems to make Richard’s failures analogous with what has happened since the play, speeds through the history of Middle Eastern “diplomacy” and conflict until, in the twentieth century, it becomes not a Christian versus Muslim confrontation but one of Jew against Arab.
As political history unravels through the Balfour Declaration, the King David Hotel bombing which launched modern terrorism, the creation of the State of Israel, the Six Day War and onward to the surprising sane remarks of Richard Nixon speaking at Camp David to 9/11, Bush and his new crusade speech to the clownish posturing of Tony Blair, the play begins to seem like an indictment with Richard representing Britain. What begins as a kind of pageant utilising the processions, the music, even the low comedy of Elizabethan stages is continued in tomorrow’s headlines.
Director Dacre has described the play as “depicting a kind of ideological chain reaction across history,” an astute observation. It doesn’t offer a case for either side or proffer any solutions.
This production doesn’t produce clarity from its complications but it displays a theatricality of Elizabethan dimensions, broad in its sweep, bold in imagination and full of powerful images. Strong performances, especially from Siddig, Hopkins and Geraldine Alexander as Queen Eleanor add flesh to history’s leaders.
But the power of the play comes less from the words David Eldridge has actually written than from what made the headlines this morning.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton