The subject of Steven Berkoff's Ritual In Blood – another exploration of Jewish history following last summer's acclaimed Messiah – is one of the periodic persecutions of mediaeval English Jews for the "blood libel" of sacrificing children in insult to Christianity :the campaign of 1255 against the Jews of Lincoln for allegedly slaughtering an eight-year-old boy who was subsequently canonised as a Christian martyr.
Timothy Walker's production is far removed from the in-yer-face Berkoffisms that might have been expected; only the exaggerated, drawling swagger of Simon Merrells' King Henry III approaches what one thinks of as the old bruiser's style of staging. But the script itself is also quite restrained; although it is written in an often declamatory style, moving from one debate and verbal confrontation to the next, the writer seems to realise that the historical events themselves supply quite enough shock and outrage without needing his graphic brand of bloody poetry.
The piece is at its best, in fact, with the discreetly grim motif of commerce and finance. Themes of ownership crop up time and again: the murdered Hugh's parents (in particular his Lady Macbeth of a mother) want to see a return on their loss; the Gentiles not only calculate how much blood money they can extract from the country's Jews without crippling them with regard to further spurious ransoms, but treat the community itself as a commodity: at one point the king moans, "I don't even own the Jews any more!" Even title to the young martyr, and associated commercial revenues, is a matter of dispute between the boy's parish and the episcopal see.
Berkoff also thoughtfully fashions matters so that Hugh's own father Luke (Justin Shevlin) ends up committing several of the atrocities of which the Jews are falsely accused: he first mutilates the boy's body to back up the story of murder in order to prevent himself from being arraigned for false witness, after his elder son Edmund's private confession that Hugh simply died from a fall while attempting to scrump apples in the Jew Copin (Jon Rumney)'s orchard; later, Luke even stabs the eucharistic host to see whether "the body of Christ" will bleed, because he feels compelled to learn the truth of the Jew-haters' allegations about insulting rituals.
However, the play is at times clumsily patterned. It opens with a sequence of still projections depicting Hugh's actual death, and pulls off the rare, unfortunate achievement of going most noticeably awry during what is usually one of theatre's most solid bets, the courtroom sequence, in which Lincoln's leading rabbi (David Fleeshman) and his defence counsel, a radical Franciscan monk, dispute theological doctrines hotly but aridly with their accusers. The whole episode leads up to Rabbi Ben Barachyal's impassioned "Here I stand, I can do no other"-type declaration, after which things are perfunctorily rounded off with a series of projected captions detailing the further punishments suffered until the expulsion of the Jews from England, and a tacked-on epilogue in which Hugh's brother admits the truth forty years later to his confessor. (Earlier, at least on press night, either the author or an actor embarrassingly got the number of one of the Ten Commandments wrong.) It is as if Berkoff grows increasingly impatient to say what he has been wanting to say, then sharply loses interest. But he has rendered the journey much more compelling than the destination.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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