I recently went to see David Eldridge’s latest play ‘Holy Warriors’ at the Globe with the medievalist’s usual hopes and fears, vacillating between the exultant ‘how cool, the third crusade comes alive again!’ and the suspicious ‘these post-moderns are gonna massacre (Acre-style) history again!’. Having read no reviews before the performance, I let myself be taken in by a very unexpected narrative of universality, circularity and political moralism, driven by a two-speed plot.
The first half of the play reads like simple-English Wikipedia. A in media res kick-off does not preclude the monotony of the usual crusade narrative, rendered in extreme yet disproportionate historical accuracy, with too much detail and facile character sketches. Saladin captures Jerusalem, Pope calls for a Crusade, kings Richard of England and Philip of France manage to join forces against their common enemy in the East despite deep-seated contentions, they make battle, Richard returns from the East and dies a historically-accurate death. It all seems like medieval annals incarnate on stage, rushed, undigested, impetuous yet lacking depth. When all seems lost (to me at least), the play shifts gear and lands Richard in Purgatory, while his shadowy mother puts on a Vergilian ‘tunic’ and takes up the task of showing her dead son the future of the Holy Land down to the modern period. End of the first part – the curtain falls, only there are no curtains at the Globe, so we are left with a sense of wonder as to where this is going.
The second half deconstructs the Middle-Eastern conflict, playing on allegory, moral intent and a sense of ‘what happened then is still happening now’, bringing a millennium of western intervention in the Holy Land (which surreptitiously becomes a disenchanted ‘Middle East’ on stage) into a bubble of ambiguity and cross-pressures. The usual suspects are there: Napoleon, Lawrence of Arabia, Blair, Bush and a medley of soldiers of all flags. This second half does not rush through, but seems to put on a didactic tone, insisting with each scene that all is semper eadem.
The play does not lack in humour. How could it at the Globe anyway? Yet the humour has the hallmarks of the medieval mystery play, where the Anglo-French squabbles and a ridiculous Pope who dies upon learning of the fall of Jerusalem are sure to prompt some bursts of cachinnation from the audience. After a furious charge through history, the observant King Richard asks her motherly guide: ‘What is the Soviet Union?’, bordering on the absurd.
The music is splendid, but only in the first part. Plainchant joins Arabic monody to spectacular effect, whereas a constant effusion of frankincense from two suspended burners cocoons the stage from the modernity of its surroundings. The spell vanishes like smoke in the second part as period music dissolves into cacophonies of electric guitar riffs and grenade-like explosions.
This is a play that depends heavily on its historical background, whether medieval, modern or contemporary. History, not actors, take central stage, and this may be an inconvenience to many who are not well-versed in either crusade history or the Middle-Eastern conflict. Yet, like a good Aesopian fable, it rubs a clear lesson in: while we may learn our past, we rarely learn from it.