Holy Warriors in rehearsal. Alexander Siddig as Saladin. Photo: Marc Brenner
‘I have been working in the theatre for 18 years and I’ve never rehearsed a play that seems to be so much in dialogue with what’s happening now, with what we are hearing and seeing on the radio and television. It’s incredibly sad, you know?’
David Eldridge isn’t happy. It’s only a few weeks until the opening of his Globe play, Holy Warriors, but his voice sounds heavy. The play is about the 12th century battle for control over Jerusalem – the Third Crusade – between legendary Muslim leader Saladin and Richard the Lionheart, King of England. The recent murders of three Israeli teenagers and one Palestinian teenager, and the boiling tensions in Gaza, have lent Eldridge’s play an awful relevance.
‘It’s incredibly sad. I can’t feel any sense of vindication about having written this play now. It’s sobering actually. Highly sobering. Just the words of the place names, all these places that were fought over in the Third Crusade – Acre, Jaffa and of course Israel and Palestine – it fills me with sadness. It really does.’
This is Eldridge’s first history play – yet in many ways it feels like his most topical. Until this point, Eldridge’s plays have largely been contemporary works set in England. Many have unfolded in London – including his rowdy 2006 National Theatre debut Market Boy – and four of his plays, most notably In Basildon, have been set in Eldridge’s home county of Essex. Barring his stage adaptations (including his brilliant version of Festen), this is the first time Eldridge has strayed so far from .
It is the cruel relevance of Warriors – the idea of history doggedly and destructively repeating itself – that is weighing on Eldridge’s mind. ‘How is that we have these centuries of history and yet we’re not able, or at least our politicians are not able, to learn the lessons of those histories? I suppose that is the central question that underpins the whole gesture of this play: How far is it possible for us to learn from the lessons of history and act accordingly?’
When Eldridge first started writing the play four years ago, he envisioned it as a history play in the Shakespearean tradition – but quickly found himself getting unstuck. Eldridge lectures in Creative Writing at Birkbeck and he comes across as a highly analytical writer, always hovering just above his work; ‘I reached a point where I realised that I had to find a shape to the play which was really about the story I wanted to tell. I began to take a much more subjective approach, really owning the fact that I was writing a fictional play and that while the play piece might begin as a Shakespeare history play, it doesn’t have to be like that for a whole evening.’
What started out as a relatively faithful history play became a much freer and wilder work. ‘It is not about realism. In fact, it is the opposite of realism. It is fantastical and on a tangent. It is something that can move across centuries and geographical spaces and times in a way that is really fleet of foot, which is always so fantastic in The Globe.’
According to Twitter, at least, the production is set to be a fairly manic and dynamic piece of theatre. Deep into rehearsals, director James Dacre tweeted: ‘4 battles, 3 songs, 2 dances and a wedding, funeral, papal inauguration and troubadour show. Typical day on Holy Warriors then?’
Eldridge was one of a number of playwrights, including Moira Buffini, Richard Bean and Roy Williams, who, in 2005, called out for more ‘monsterist’ plays: ambitious, large-scale, large cast new writing, wild in scope, a call for playwrights, and the theatres that commissioned them, to think big. Eldridge remains proud of this campaign: ‘I think the monsterists did have an impact and I think the campaign helped theatres to be more ambitious in their programming and encouraged playwrights to write really big stories that need big casts to tell them properly. I don’t think that [British] theatre has gone backwards, even with the recent austerity.’
The Globe, says Eldridge, is the ideal home for a playwright of monsterist sensibilities. ‘I would just observe that The Globe, like any of our bigger stages that living playwrights sometimes work on – like the Olivier, National or the RSC – needs narrative. These big spaces eat narrative. They’re not places for simple character led stories. Whatever anyone ultimately thinks of Holy Warriors, it is a really, really big story and I don’t think you could tell that story as well, as much as I love them, at The Bush or 503.’
Eldridge always wrote Holy Warriors with The Globe in mind: ‘I knew it was something for The Globe immediately. For me, The Globe is the most democratic of our theatres. It is a place where just over the half the audience have more expensive seats and just under half the audience can pay a fiver. It is a theatre where the shared experience is emphasized by the fact the play happens under natural light. This makes it a very honest space, where the audience cannot get lost in the dark.’The Globe is obviously a great place to host a spectacle – but Eldridge believes it is also the ideal arena in which to discuss politics: ‘I know the idea of the West as peacemaker is a very contentious idea – but that idea of why we are there [in the Middle East] and what we should do is a pressing one. Exploring those ideas in a big public, open and democratic space like The Globe seemed incredibly important to me. It means that I didn’t consider approaching The National or the RSC. This is a story I wanted to tell at The Globe.’
It is the first time Eldridge has worked at The Globe. In preparation, he had tea with the man he considers ‘the best living playwright who has written for the Globe’ – Howard Brenton. Over a brew, Brenton shared his secrets: ‘One of the things that Howard said to me that really resonated is that at The Globe you can have an actor walk around one of the pillars and say ‘one year later’ and it is delightful and the audience accepts it. That would just feel naff in the Almeida. There is a kind of directness between the play and the audience at the Globe which really affects the story-telling. The audience enjoys a kind of theatricality at The Globe that you might have to consider in a different way for a theatre with its roof on.’
The idea of Eldridge and Brenton having a tea and a chat about theatre is, somehow, hugely cheering. It is comforting too – and suggests a generous exchange of artistic ideas that counteracts all this depressing talk of political history repeating itself. In artistic terms, at least, Eldridge believes we are moving forward: ‘There continues to be this consistently rich flowering of stories within our theatre. I think it’s something about our culture that is deeply embedded in our DNA, the idea of wanting to tell stories in a shared space and in a wide way. We continue to do that insistently and with great expertise.’
David Eldridge’s Holy Warriors is at the Globe Theatre, London, from 19th July – 24th August 2014