CROSS , CRESCENT, CRUELTY, CONFUSION
When this “fantasia on the third crusade” picks up momentum and reaches the summit of its oddity – a spectacular, if rather foggy peak – there comes an ensemble chant of “When does the West act wisely in these lands?”. Er, not often. Little wisdom is evident in the 11c declaration that certain bits of other people’s countries were “Outremer”, and Christian-ruled. Or in the 1099 sack of Jerusalem. Or the crusades. The partition of Palestine and the Balfour declaration could have had happier results, too, as could the Iraq war.
Not that the locals were models of benign wisdom: you could take this play as a requiem for some terrible ideas. “Caliphate” is one, “Christendom” another. “Holy War” is one of the worst concepts ever, and it is ludicrously unspiritual to believe in “Holy Places”: lumps of earth worth killing the locals for, even if they were mildly letting you visit…
David Eldridge has bitten off a lot in this pageant-play, and Dominic Dromgoole deserves credit for putting it on just as Syria, Gaza and the civil war in Iraq dominate the news. But clarity of exposition is not Eldridge’s strong point, and unless you’re a medieval historian with a taste for broadsheet middle-east analysis, buy the programme and study the historical essays and timeline first. Slowly.
It opens with Globesque spectacle: Director James Dacre uses the big space with confidence. Priests chant, Saladin brandishes his scimitar, a great jewelled cross descends and Raymond of Tripoli rants to King Guy (no, me neither, till I read the notes). “If Jerusalem is lost” he roars “Christendom will be lost and the penitent willwalk like lost souls on this earth forever more”.
Scenes whirl on, with dynastic marriage bickering which resolves into fierce Eleanor of Aquitaine urging her son Richard the Lionheart (John Hopkins) to war. Gregory VIII urges “every true Christian Lord and man of honour” to win eternal life by zapping the infidels. But its success as a history-play is hampered by gratingly archaic lines and a lack of earthy commoners who don’t see the point (Shakespeare always put them in). And when Berengaria invites the Lionheart to bed with the words “I will make for you a gift of sensuality that will smooth your troubles” you wince. Actors should not be forced to speak such lines. Not outside Spamalot. It isn’t fair.
Later Saladin reappears in modern militaria surrounded by a chorus in chrono-clashing helmets, turbans, business suits, epaulets and battle-fatigues; Napoleon has a row with King Abdulla, and fragments of real 20c speeches raise the interest, not least King Faisal’s “We Arabs have none of the racial or religious animosity against the Jews” while warning that imposing a Jewish homeland in Palestine – where many Jews had lived in peace – might bring strident new arrivals with little respect for “their duties under a Muslim power or a foreign Christian power mandated by the League of Nations”.
Begin, Ben-Gurion, Sadat, and kindly President Carter of Camp David flit by. Blair speaks to Congress after 9/11. Richard and Saladin bicker about who massacred most people, and Eleanor of Aquitaine (a fine Geraldine Alexander) returns to riff about what a mess it all is 800 years on. Richard becomes a modern British soldier, effing and blinding then suddenly going all medieval about how he will rip cherubs from their clouds to win the New Jerusalem. George W Bush gives him a sword.
In consort with an earnest study of the programme and source books it could be thought-provoking (if depressing). It looks good. Elena Langer’s music is enjoyable. But it’s a bit of a mess.
box office 020 7902 1400 to 24 August