In the opening minutes of David Eldridge’s dramatisation of the Third Crusade, it seems as if the chronicle could fall prey to both obvious orientalism and overexplicit narrative.
But through the first half, it becomes apparent that these are devices tactically deployed in conscious imitation of Shakespearean history plays, as Eldridge and director James Dacre treat the struggle between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin over possession of Jerusalem in a manner befitting the Globe.
Then, in the final seconds before the interval and the hour or so after it, stylistic afterburners propel the play into an audacious stratosphere.
At the RSC in recent years, John Hopkins has showed himself capable of both taut commitment and square-jawed, deadpan self-parody. Here his Richard runs the entire gamut, often in the course of a single line. As Saladin, Alexander Siddig is somewhat underused, although in the second act, playing multiple roles, he at least escapes typecasting by playing a couple of Jews among his various Arab characters. Other characters range from 12th-century sappers to Tony Blair; Sirine Saba, for instance, gets to double as Berengaria of Navarre and Golda Meir.
Herein lies Eldridge’s daring. He relocates Richard’s death to the Holy Land in order to provide a pretext for what follows: a presentation to Richard, as he languishes in purgatory, of the following centuries in the Middle East, especially the 20th/21st from the Sykes-Picot agreement to the ISIS jihad and the current Gaza attacks.
This is tremendously sensitive territory, especially at present, but both writer and director expertly walk the high-wire between the twin abysses of timidity and alienating partiality.
There then follows a recapitulation of the crusade but in modern terms and language; the final negotiations about the status and dominion of Jerusalem echo down the centuries, with a grim threat that they will continue to do so.
This beautifully pitched production of a coruscatingly ambitious play offers no answers but it is one of those occasions on which simply asking a properly formulated question in dramatic form takes more skill and nerve than most can muster.
Photograph: Marc Brenner