‘Holy Warriors’ brings the Crusades to life at London’s Globe
Linked hand in hand, Saladin, King Richard I, Tony Blair and George Bush danced to dabke beats
Linked hand in hand, Saladin, King Richard I, Tony Blair and George Bush danced to the dabke beats and bowed to a rapturous audience. What looks like an apocalyptic scene, is in fact the final scene from David Eldridge’s play “Holy Warriors,” as it bids farewell to London’s Globe Theatre. Eldridge himself, present for the final show, received a standing ovation by an enthralled audience, in tribute to his conceptualization of the third crusade woven together like a Shakespearean style drama.
The crusades are a time in history that evokes different emotions to different people at different times in history and today. Eldridge, writer of acclaimed stage adaptation of “Festen” and whose play “In Basildon” was voted number one theatre pick of 2012 by the Guardian’s critics and arts writers, has undertaken a great feat of skill to explore the vast pool of conflicting opinions on this period of history, to separate fact from fiction and depict a time from the past through a lens of the 21st century.
The play, focused on two of the most recognised figures from mediaeval history - Saladin and Richard the Lionheart, opens in the conventional style of a Shakespearean history play but soon develops into kaleidoscopic sequence of events when Richard I dies and enters purgatory. After the interval, the king is given the opportunity to rewrite the history of the Third Crusade, by being transported to different continents and time zones and seeing the succession of leaders from Napoleon, Lawrence of Arabia, David Ben-Gurion, President Carter, President Sadat and Tony Blair unveiling his troublesome legacy. For the audience, it connects the conflict of today in the Middle East to the 12th century.
Through a fine ensemble of actors and an impressive narrative construction, the relationship between of Richard I and Saladin, who in fact never met in person, is compellingly told, not least due to moving performances from John Hopkins and Alexander Siddig. Holy warriors examines the context of the third crusade and the enduring legacy of its chief architects, which have traversed the religious divide, in order to resonate in today’s “negotiation over access to holy places.”
Some reviews of the play have criticised the unfolding search by Richard I to re-write history as “confusing” and a “half completed-project.” But that is merely indicative of the immeasurable challenge undertaken to relay a mediaeval-modern tale within a two-hour time frame. Like history, the story is complex and creates moments of being incomprehensible. When history is often the source of hostility in modern day conflicts, the disorientation feels less the fault of the narrative construction and more a representation of the socio-political discord of history.
Often, story-telling is predicated on a “burning question” or “a feeling about something.” According to an interview with Eldridge published in the theatre's program booklet, his question is “how is it that history manages to repeat itself so endlessly and yet lessons of history are not readily accepted by those who often really shape history, in all our names?” In true Globe Theatre tradition, “Holy Warriors” fits into its host’s fearless objective of posing questions about why we live the way we do. Such a meta question feels natural in the open air of the globe, in the heart of London, located adjacent to Westminster, that attracts a multicultural audience that are more often than not connected to the on going debates about global politics and religion.
Toward the end of the 20th century, the term crusade, especially within Western culture lost its connection to the original fervor of holy war, being viewed, as described by Eldridge, in terms of being a “metaphor for a good cause.” When politicians and historians often provide subjective accounts of the past, it’s down to storytellers like Eldridge to infuse moments of humanity and contradiction to historical characters “repeatedly asking whether the strength of their desire for peace can prove greater than the size of their ego.”
With troubles flaring up in the past few weeks in both Gaza and Iraq, and as political commentators try to navigate potential future solutions for peace, “Holy Warrior” provides a necessary opportunity to take stock of how the past influences the present. There can be no solutions to the future if we do not understand the past.