It is 1491 and the Red Fortress of Carl Miller's ambitious play is the Alhambra in Granada - Qal'at al-Hamra - still a centre of Islamic culture but about to be overtaken by the Catholic crusade of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile sweeps into Andalucía. A Genoese who believes the world is round is lobbying those Catholic Monarchs to finance a voyage to Japan by sailing out across the Atlantic.
In the beautiful gardens of the Alhambra to the sound of fountains and rippling water a court that believes in tolerance, science and beauty still flourishes and in the town outside the fortress walls are three young people: Rabia (Géhane Strehler), Muslim daughter of a female book and paper seller, Luis (Jack Blumenau), son of a Jewish pharmacist, and Iago (John Cockerill) the refugee son of a Christian farmer who has been driven off his land by the invaders. There is a Muslim Emir in disguise, negotiating surrender, a female jongleur, a Spanish grandee, who buys the little cannon Luis has made and so accelerates the war, all of whom the three encounter on the expedition they set out on to the Catholics' Holy Faith fort and back.
This is not literal history but a story that takes the historical facts as a starting point and touches on a whole range of issues: sectarianism, monarchic power, cultural values, sexual equality and sexual orientation and reflects many of the preoccupations of our modern world from the global economy to the cult of shopping. It probably takes on too much and the threat from the Christian crusade is not clearly established at first. Things are not helped by some rather indistinct delivery from performers - though it improves considerably as the play progresses. (Strange that Strehler's performance becomes much more real and her voice clear and expressive when she switches into male attire.) I wonder too how many of the audience can clearly read the texts projected on the stage floor between some scenes.
Casting is colour blind and sex blind - which I would usually endorse but here, with a black female for instance playing a cardinal and a dark skinned Christopher Columbus (a fine cameo by Amit Sharma, who also plays King Ferdinand) it may obscure the fact that oppression based on gender, race and religion is a key part of the Catholic rule. Nevertheless there is plenty for a young audience to identify with and though they may not take in all the points of Miller's rather self-conscious script, most of the ideas presented should leave a mark. For school parties a little preparation about the historical background could be helpful; certainly there are plenty of topics here for pupils to pursue afterwards. I wonder if they picked up a hint that things might be better in a republic, not that there was any argument made to support this - which might be difficult when you look at modern republics! Nor was there any case made for the crusaders - nor for why a tolerant, questioning society was better: that was taken for granted.
The production is beautifully mounted in rich sets by Adam Wiltshire, which take one from orange grove to palace pool, the gates of the Alhambra to a sun-scorched wasteland. Director Tony Graham (aided by movement and fight directors Jessica Swale and Paul Benzing) has devised a slow-motion battle and unhurried scene changes that still maintain the momentum of his lively production, aided by some beautiful music composed by Tunde Jegende and played on drums, gourds, kora and one stringed violin-like nyamyeru by Maya Jobarteh (who also sings) and Juldeh Camara. For me their singing and playing is worth going for alone.
Juvenile audiences are very direct in their response. The one I was with showed their appreciate with plenty of applause when the play ended but during the action, when the jongleur made a lisse-style descent on a rope from above then took a call, there was no response - perhaps because a safety harness and line was all too visible. Was it really necessary? Many in this audience was certainly not ready for one of the young protagonists to reveal his male on male affections: this needs much more careful preparation, and two boys kissing (just once) brought laughter from them.
The play perhaps takes on too much and the first act is a mite too long but there is much here both to delight and to make young audiences think.
Ends 8th November, 2008
Reviewer: Howard Loxton