London’s Crusade Drama Falls Flat
Photo: Marc Brenner
Is this the most ill opportune time to mount a “fantasia on the Third Crusade and the history of violent struggle in the Holy Lands”? That’s how the pompous, Kushner-esque subtitle of David Eldridge’s underbaked new play “Holy Warriors” would have it.
London’s Globe Theatre might believe this is quite the coup, for what better time to stage a play about war in the Middle East than in a time of war in the Middle East? But the debate surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict — so polarized and contentious at the best of times — becomes even more entrenched, bitter and blind during periods of armed struggle. The instinct to pick a side overtakes the mind and ears close to nuance, including the nuance of art.
But perhaps in the case of “Holy Warriors” (running in repertory until August 24), the notion that its subtlety might be lost shouldn’t be of much concern. The play’s first act is a well staged and often engaging canter through 12th-century Levantine history, beginning in Damascus with Saladin’s decision to march upon Jerusalem, through the Battle of Hattin, the capitulation of the Christian rulers of Jerusalem in 1197, and the Third Crusade and Richard the Lionheart’s failure to recapture Jerusalem from its Muslim rulers.
Eldridge’s treatment of this period is not unique, perhaps because there isn’t anything new to be said. His characterisation of Saladin closely resembles the contemporary interpretation of someone who could be at once ruthless in battle and merciful in the aftermath. Played astutely by Alexander Siddig (who, later in the piece, makes a cameo as Menachem Begin), Saladin ignores cries for bloodlust and revenge from within his court, offering to the Christians the chance to buy their freedom and safe passage out of the city. “The whole world will know we act with grace and chivalry,” he tells his son, Az-Zahir.
In response to demands to pull down the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Saladin says, “It will not be destroyed. The good Muslim venerates and respects the Holy Places of all religions. It is the Franks who are uncivilized.”
The fantasia begins after the intermission. Richard the Lionheart, who has fallen into purgatory after failing to set his feet in the gates of Jerusalem, experiences a kaleidoscopic vision of the future of Palestine: Napoleon, Faisal and Weizmann, the bombing of the King David Hotel, Israel’s Declaration of Independence, and on and on. In one excruciating sequence, Eleanor of Aquitaine stands in the centre of the stage and in essence reads out a list of everything that happened after the Third Crusade. “The folly of Napoleon! The coming of the Zionists! The coming of the Kaiser, resplendent in white!” she exclaims. It is an agony that seems to be without end.
After this ham-fisted aural torture, the action resumes, with Richard thrown back into the Third Crusade — but not the same crusade he experienced before. Now, Richard and his soldiers are clad in modern camouflage fatigues, speak a more contemporary tongue, and carry pistols, not swords. Together with the French, they propose, in the “most humanitarian of gestures,” to “draw the lines on the map and divide the Holy Lands, Mesopotamia, and Arabia between us.”
At this point, there ought not to be a soul in the audience unaware of what Eldridge is doing. “The great powers in the west should stop interfering in our lands,” Saladin tells Richard. “Your fractured church needed a war to unite it, that’s all. The Crusaders brought holy war in to these lands.” When Richard tells Saladin they will meet again on the battlefield, Saladin replies, “Yes, we will. There are discontented Emirs that would make a battlefield of the streets of London.”
Such dialogue does not so much prompt an appreciative or knowing nod as a resigned sigh. If the intent of Eldridge’s play is to argue that history is cyclical, that recent Western interventions in the Middle East are but modern crusades, then “Holy Warriors” can only be seen as something stunningly superficial. It is the sort of analysis one might expect from a wet-eared undergraduate with a cursory understanding of Said and Chomsky, not a mature playwright demanding almost two-and-a-half hours of our time and a fistful of our money.
Eldridge is at the very least a funny writer, who gives the best lines to Richard the Lionheart, played to the back of the gallery by John Hopkins. And, in the play’s very final scenes, he does begin to offer something of interest in the text. “There will never be a lasting peace while there is no humility among Kings and Sultans,” Saladin says. “What a tragedy it is for our people when you or I cannot imagine a different future, even as we weigh the triumphs and failures of our times.”
“The people of the Holy Lands wish to farm their land, and draw from their wells. They wish to feed their families and raise their children. The people wish to worship without persecution,” Eleanor of Aquitaine appeals, echoing the words of Yitzhak Rabin spoken on the White House lawn in 1993. “We, like you, are people who want to build a home, to plant a tree, to love, live side by side…” If only such musings and deft appeals to history more frequent in Eldridge’s script.
As I was leaving the theatre I overheard a fraction of a conversation. “It was very ambitious,” the husband said to his wife. “Yes,” she said, “it was very brave to take on those big ideas.” I wish it was either ambitious or brave. In spite of the occasional rhetorical flourish and a fine company of actors and musicians, “Holy Warriors” doesn’t really say anything of value or use history in a meaningful way to inform us about our present. Any play that ends with George W. Bush throwing a sword to Richard the Lionheart can only be seen as cheap.