Holy Warriors

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Thursday, 24 July, 2014
Review by: 
Libby Purves

Lord, what fools these mortals be: especially when attempting to organize their immortality along militaristic religious lines. With unnerving topicality, just as Iraq, Syria, and Gaza explode in flames and blood the Globe airs David Eldridge's ambitious, peculiar new play: a "fantasia on the Third Crusade" of 1188-1192 which sent Richard the Lionheart and countless theoretically devout Christian knights off on a picturesque but disastrous mission to "recapture" Jerusalem from Saladin's Muslim forces. The fantasia then expands to express the modern era of conflict in the Middle East and its global consequences from Napoleon to 9/11.

The author's ambition is only partly fulfilled in an often bewildering pair of hour-long acts (for heaven's sake, study the programme's historical essay and detailed timeline if you are wobbly on the history of the Crusades and tend to fall asleep in Newsnight). The first half is set in the 12th century, with Pope Gregory calling what Saladin (not without reason) dismisses as a cynical "war to heal a fractured Church" and Eleanor of Aquitaine urging her son Richard the Lionheart to go and conquer the "Holy City". It has too many grandiose archaisms and too little space to consider the character and motivations of these people as they whirl past. But Geraldine Alexander is a fine Eleanor, using the eloquence better than most, and Alexander Siddig a spectacularly handsome scowling Saladin with a credible courtly edge to him.

But the choral, choreographed, confusing second act feels like the exam nightmare that hits you after too much modern-history module revision: studded with fragments of speeches and references from every direction: Lawrence of Arabia, King Faisal, the Balfour Declaration, Ben-Gurion and Begin and Golda Meir, Jimmy Carter at Camp David, Tony Blair addressing Congress. The ghost of Eleanor wanders about making reasonable points about what a disaster it all is, and the reanimated Lionheart turns into a cussing, ill-tempered British soldier amid a great many bangs and military noises, before going all medieval again about the New Jerusalem.

That it doesn't work is a shame, because we do live in a time where the word "crusade", even in a metaphor, causes Muslims to bristle with offence. Knowing a bit about historical grudges is a useful, if grim, bit of mental furniture: not least because it might have stopped George W Bush using that fatal C-word after 9/11 and making everything that bit angrier, and worse.


"Eldridge’s sweep of history offers no new insight into the age-old problems of religious and political conflict, and its characterization is perfunctory."
Jane Shilling for Daily Telegraph

"There is fun to be had in James Dacre's adept, well-acted production, and a terrific design by Mike Britton that allows room for both politics and pageantry. But the show requires knowledge of Middle Eastern history and politics, and teaches only what we already know: we seldom learn from history."
Lyn Gardner for The Guardian

"It is either crazily ambitious or just plain crazy to try to cover 900 years of one of the bloodiest conflicts in world history, the struggle for Jerusalem, in a mere two hours of drama. Unfortunately the latter is the case for David Eldridge’s misguided new play, which will leave those already decently informed on the subject no better off but considerably more cross — and everyone else utterly bewildered."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard

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