Holy Warriors, a new play by David Eldridge, is billed as “a fantasia on the Third Crusade and the history of violent struggle in the Holy Lands” — like other plays of such a niche genre, it truly delivers as an epic. Like Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Eldridge weaves the historic and poetic into an explosion of dramatic splendour.
With a cast twenty strong, the production covers over nine hundred years of conflict in the Middle East, featuring historical characters that are as varied as Napoleon Bonaparte, Anwar Sadat, Jimmy Carter and Tony Blair. Eldridge’s play is an incredible interpretation of the events during the Holy Crusades, and both he and director James Dacre are careful in stating that this is in fact an interpretation and not a history play. Eldridge is considerate in showing the fallibility and hypocrisy that both sides had during the Holy Wars, but also highlights the fervour and dogma that fuelled such conflict — characteristics and political stances that modern leaders from both sides still share with their ancestors — full of conviction, but ultimately flawed.
The Sultan Saladin (Alexander Sidding) begins the play in a dreamlike state, foretelling of the crusades to come and warning his sons of their duty to the kingdom and the Holy Lands. He seems a poetic sage full of omnipotence in his words, juxtaposed against the haughty and parochial Richard the Lionheart (John Hopkins) who wants to reclaim Jerusalem more for power than as a penitence to God.
The play follows Saladin and Richard’s wars throughout the Middle East, sacking kingdoms and reclaiming cities for each other’s ends and in the name of Islam and Christianity, respectively. The men will stop at nothing to ensure the Holy Land remains under singular control, but whereas Saladin would allow Christians to pay pilgrimage to the Holy Lands, Richard wants ultimate bloodshed and the winning hand.
This play becomes more powerful as it veers into modern times, highlighting the laughable and idiotic soapboxes that modern Western powers stand on, trying to control these lands for their own usage. Eldridge frames modernity in a posthumous dream state for Richard, who is shown what will come centuries after him. For as dense and serious as the context of the production is, it is witty and humorous, made more so by its ensemble cast who take on many roles to get the audience through nine hundred years of history.
Holy Warriors is an epic fantasia of war raged on spiritual lands — a crusade led by men fighting with ego and not divinity. It is timely and resonant in a decade that is seeing a great resurgence of conflict in this holy area. Eldridge’s words are as important as they are beautiful, as they are necessary.
Holy Warriors is playing at the Globe Theatre until 24 August. For more information and tickets, see the Globe Theatre website.
Photo by Marc Brenner.