West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Opened 20 June, 1995

The biggest production in the history of the West Yorkshire Playhouse puts over 70 members of the local community on stage, a couple of dozen more on gantries supplying choral commentary, and a raft of others lending technical and production support to Michael Birch's adaptation of Russell Hoban's novel. The end result is awesome in its magnitude but impenetrable and shapeless, not unlike the Cristo-wrapped Reichstag.

The play follows the 11th-century life of the eponymous Pilgermann (Damien Goodwin, the only professional actor in the cast), the first Jewish eunuch to join a Crusade, to his death at the hands of the Christian Franks as they overrun Moslem Antioch. Birch, for whom this production is the culmination of a series of community courses run at the Playhouse, uses the full scope of the stage to present a sumptuous spectacle. For the first half hour or so, all main characters are wheeled around on mobile scaffolding platform by teams of supernumeraries. An enormous "canvas" backdrop periodically descends to show either one of the Hieronymus Bosch pictures which Hoban often alludes to, or anything from Islamic art to Goya, by way of commenting on the action.

As Pilgermann, castrated by rampaging Christians, embarks on his journey, he is assailed by a series of human, animal and divine apparitions who regale him with opaque parables (a live suffering Jesus is flown in on an enormous altarpiece: Pilgermann remarks, "I'm a Jew I want to talk to your father, please.") When he settles in Antioch and designs an enormous geometric pavement whose construction is one of the least demanding, but most potent, coups de théâtre of the evening a major theme begins to emerge. Hoban and Birch are dealing with the contingency of history, its lack of linear causality, and with mankind's impulse to explain it in linear terms by ascribing concrete effects to some abstract cause, whether it be God or the ineffability of a tile design.

This is tough, fibrous stuff, and the staging does not support its weight. Tim Fleming's choral score veers between majestic bewilderment and slightly superior school musical: the breadth of the intellectual burden is combated rather than complemented by the visual grandeur, which often demands to be prefaced by the words "folie de". One suspects that the ideal audience response questionnaire for the production would consist of a three-hour essay. The pilgrimage is not to be undertaken lightly to a show which, though admirable from a distance, is at close hand a gruelling maelstrom of visions and ideas.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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