`My position as a dramatist is as a writer of fiction’ – playwright David Eldridge talking about Holy Warriors, his new play just opened at London Shakespeare’s Globe.
Peter Shaffer, writing about The Royal Hunt of the Sun, wrote `[I wanted] to create “total theatre”, gestural as well as verbal, exercising the imaginative muscle of the audience.’
Shaffer’s later 1979 play, Amadeus, has just been revived at Chichester’s handsomely revamped Chichester Festival Theatre. What both Holy Warriors and Amadeus share is the sense of works sprung richly from the imagination of their creators but ostensibly steeped in historical `fact’. To what extent those imaginative juices have succeeded in bringing forth dramatic gold is intriguing for Eldridge and Shaffer take very different routes to their professed goals.
Eldridge up to now has been a writer largely engaged in original works on modern, contemporary themes: In Basildon, Incomplete and Random Acts of Kindness, Under the Blue Sky, to name a few, although he has also adapted Ibsen (The Lady from the Sea, John Gabriel Borkman, The Wild Duck) and Strindberg’s Miss Julie. He also adapted with great success the stage version of the Danish film, Festen. But what distinguishes an Eldridge play is its humanity and compassion.
So it is with the timely, painfully relevant and important Holy Warriors that dares to take the long view on the Middle East through the prism of the Third Crusade and in particular, the oppositional figures of the 12th century Kurdish Sultan, Saladin and his opposite Christian number, Richard the Lionheart.
Calling it, `a fantasia on the third crusade and the history of violent struggle in the Holy Lands,’ but based in historical fact, Eldridge sets off at a steamy canter, bustling in his medieval Muslims and Christians in a welter of activity concerning land grabs and the glittering prize to monarch and Sultan that was and continues to be, the city of Jerusalem.
As fortunes swing one way then another, Holy Warriors bears distinct comparison, appropriately in the Globe, to Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses history plays, without the Yorkist-Lancaster entanglements. Then, suddenly, Eldridge switches after the interval into a different, fantastical, expressionist mode. Like Pressburger-Powell’s iconic 1946 film, A Matter of Life and Death, Eldridge gives the dying Richard Lionheart the opportunity, through his redoubtable mother, Eleanor Queen of Aquitaine to act differently. What if, he asks, Richard had carried on to Jerusalem and `finished the job’ of recapturing it from Saladin and Muslim rule? The bloody 800 year history that has subsequently flowed might, just might, have been different.
Eldridge’s real point, however, is to highlight history as subject to the subjective personal peccadillos and ego of rulers – a surprising philosophical throwback considering the domination of Marxist analyses of the 1960s, 70s and 80s seeing history as a series of collective movements.
Be that as it may, and confusing as Eldridge’s kaleidoscopic approach is – it’s often not entirely clear which character is which – he has still done us a mighty favour by attempting to resituate the current desperate, locked Gaza/Israel and modern Middle East situation in some degree of historical perspective. There is a magnificent moment, for example, where Eleanor summarises the history of Muslim, Christian and Jew in the area within the space of not more than a couple of minutes.
Almost worth it for that alone, James Dacre’s production carries a swirling immediacy pace and humour and his company deserve accolades all round for their versatility and commitment switching from 12th Christian crusader to latter day squaddies or Muslim counterparts. Particular praise too, to John Hopkins ironic Richard, Geraldine Alexander’s crisp Eleanor. And most of all Elena Langer’s musical backdrop that keeps up a triumphant accompaniment ranging through a myriad number of styles and cultures.
Shaffer’s Amadeus – revived by Chichester in a season celebrating Shaffer’s 50 year association with the theatre – is another fascinating exercise in historical `fantasy’. But whereas Eldridge’s Holy Warriors suffers from confusion, Shaffer’s 1979 mega multi-award winner scrupulously takes audiences by the hand to indicate to them exact time signatures, places. We know exactly where we are and who we’re with, all the time.
Strangely, this too can have its downside, adding a sense of pedantry to an otherwise – and like Holy Warriors – swirling pageant of a play, staged with vigour and flair by Jonathan Church on Chichester’s enlarged thrust stage.
Shaffer, too has had his obsessions, and Amadeus is another example of his exploration of – and a rather Jewish one at that – Man’s conversation with God. Shaffer’s interest is also in the rational and irrational (Equus) and here between a discomfiting, foul-mouthed but brilliant music prodigy (Mozart) and the conformist Italian court composer, Salieri.
How can such beauty emanate from such a tarred personality? And why did God not heed Salieri, the loyal Catholic’s plea for fame and burning desire to become `a great composer’?
Shaffer gives these questions a good run for their money adding spice to it as a mystery thriller awash in guilt (did Salieri really poison Mozart as he claims on his deathbed?), envy and sabotage.
As Salieri, Rupert Everett cuts a lonely figure. `A monument to mediocrity’, beside the bovine, giggling but utterly charismatic Mozart of young Joshua McGuire, he does indeed appear cold, unsympathetic and slightly deadpan – maybe exactly what is required. And he has by far the hardest job with Shaffer monologues that by today’s standards wouldn’t be harmed by some judicious cutting!
If Church’s production doesn’t quite rise to the levels of the Scofield/Peter Hall original production when the fragments of Mozartian music and Salieri’s piercing appreciation became moments of pure transcendence, still this revival once again raises the eternal question of the source of artistic creation and its relation to human fraility with cunningly intelligent entertainment.