CRUSADE
Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London E15
Opened 14 April, 1994

David Vine once breathlessly intoned, "Here we are in the holy city of Jerusalem a Mecca for tourists." The knotty relationships of the region's three main religions form both the immediate focus and the deeper background of Paul Sirett's erratic play.

A minibus en route to Jerusalem breaks down, conveniently forcing a clutch of character stereotypes to endure one another's company for 90 minutes. It is not unlike a country house thriller, with Jenny Tiramani's looming rocky outcrop serving as the smoking room, and Middle Eastern history standing in for the bludgeoned corpse. The range of suspects is as broad as one might expect: a lippy, upwardly mobile Aussie woman with paranoid, bigoted Pom-born bank executive husband; a whingeing, would-be "radical" actor and his long-suffering art historian girlfriend; a female crusty, and a New Age "Rasta"; and Mahmood, the driver, whose occasional flashbacks intimate something nasty in his personal woodshed.

Israeli-Palestinian and Christian-Moslem tensions in the party's immediate circumstances are maladroitly paralleled with the crusades of the 12th century. Crass guy-ropes are thrown out in the form of contrived passionate outbursts and, of all things, a heated exchange about Islamic ceramics. At one point a dream sequence consisting of a mummers' play about Saladin and King Richard is superimposed with slide projections of the Intifada a juxtaposition which conveys nothing except that whatever is going on in the area has been doing so for a very long time.

Burt Caesar and Kate Lonergan get a raw deal as Rasta Barry and neo-hippy Fran, theoretically open to ideas but mired in the vague generalities of virtually every hackneyed line they utter. The norm of intelligent decency is encapsulated in Moslem art historian Ayesha, but Tara King's performance is overwrought, crippling the character's function as a focus of audience sympathy and identification. Director Jeff Teare is understandably uninspired by Sirett's script, with its inability to do more than nod at the magnitude of political and historical issues. Improbably, the play's closing movement reveals Mahmood as a personification of Christian-Jewish-Islamic entanglement, presiding over a debate as to which of the party should be symbolically executed.

The characters' final exit on foot to seek help merely begs the question why they did not buzz off an hour and a half earlier. Sirett has written a 90-minute shrug of bewilderment with the message, "Golly... complex, isn't it?" I think we knew that already, thanks.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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