Holy Warriors

Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

It’s hard to fault the ambition of a play that takes the audience from the Third Crusade to the recent abduction of three Israeli teenagers and its bloody fallout. Writer David Eldridge has eloquently described how impossible it would have been to do ‘Holy Warriors’ as a history play, instead taking his cue from writers like Caryl Churchill and Tony Kushner to present the last fraught millennium in the history of the Holy Land as a fantasia.

That sense of a narrative that does not operate on a linear basis, but evokes history’s endless cruel cycles through irony and echo, is evident from the start. As Alexander Siddig’s magnificently charismatic Saladin swirls his scimitar around stage, he talks of his boyhood in Tikrit, a place now indelibly stamped with the story of Saddam Hussein. He begins to tell his sons how his caliphate will be divided up after his death, the city names reading like a roll-call of recent disasters: ‘Al-Afdal, to you Damascus…Az-Zahir, to you Aleppo…’ Every reference evokes news footage of devastation, corpses and the wailing bereaved at the same time as it points us to the medieval world.

James Dacre’s excellent production initially manages to dart pleasingly between the ancient and the modern, and the story of Richard I and Saladin is compellingly told, not least due to fine performances from John Hopkins’s caustically witty English king and Geraldine Alexander’s extraordinary Eleanor of Aquitaine. However, problems set in after the interval, where we discover that Richard I has died and is now in purgatory. Given the chance to rewrite the history of the Third Crusade, he first watches as a succession of individuals including Napoleon, Lawrence of Arabia, David Ben-Gurion, President Carter, President Sadat, Tony Blair and, of course, Dubya reveal his disturbing legacy.

The action then reprises with Richard I and his ally the French king fighting to change history, this time in desert fatigues. This may be an over-literal criticism, but it feels clumsy to be presenting a French king in the modern world – there’s so much to worry about anyway, why chuck in this historical anomaly? The irritation grows: we can laugh at the fact that Richard I sends texts, but oil, obviously a dominant driver of Middle Eastern unrest over the last century, can only receive a passing reference in this conceptual framework.

The references proliferate and the action becomes increasingly confusing. Yes, it is impossible to write anything comprehensive about the Middle East, but Eldridge and Dacre should have had the courage to tell this story in a series of plays, perhaps lasting the course of a day. It is a tribute to the quality of the production and performances that I would happily return to see it. Yet for now, ‘Holy Warriors’ only feels like a half-completed project.



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