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David Eldridge Talks Holy Warriors

10 July 2014 Natasha Sutton-Williams

"I had a cup of tea with Howard Brenton who I think is possibly the best living playwright that’s written for the Globe. The first thing he said to me was, ‘Keep the story going. This place eats story’."

David Eldridge is a renowned, and prolific, playwright. His works have graced the National Theatre, Donmar Warehouse, Royal Court Theatre, the West End and now Shakespeare’s Globe with Holy Warriors. London Calling sat down with him for a cuppa to find out more…

London Calling: You’ve written for the National Theatre, the Royal Court, the Almeida and your adaptation of Festen transferred to the West End and Broadway. What’s it like to write for the Globe?

David Eldridge: I fell with love with the Globe when I came to see King Lear in 2008. It’s a very honest space. David Hare has this phrase ‘the play is in the air’. That seems truer of the Globe than anywhere else. You’ve got actors who are performing the play, you’ve got the audience, there’s natural light, you barely have any set; it’s a very open, democratic space. The beautiful apron stage that’s in the middle, the inclusive wooden ‘O’, means it’s a great space to have plays on of a very public nature. It’s wonderful to do public plays on big stages but at the Globe your actor’s relationship is to the heavens. There’s a direct relationship between the performer and the cosmos, which is fantastic for a big public play, or a play that looks at significant chunks of history and its many meanings within a contemporary context. For my play ‘Holy Warriors’ the idea of the crusades themselves, the different things they mean to different parts of the world, the contemporary nature of that old medieval history feels very present today.

LC: Why does it feel so present?

DE: The idea of Western intervention in the near and Middle East after 9/11, some of what’s happened after the Arab Spring and what’s happening in Syria and Iraq today makes the crusades very relevant. Questions like ‘What’s a Western intervention for? What are its consequences?’ are integral, both now and then.   

LC: This is the first historical play you’ve written. What’s been your writing process?

DE: Plays are always written in slightly different ways. This play definitely had a big change of direction half way through the writing. I started out consciously writing in the gesture of a Shakespeare history play, really trying to get the history right because there will be lots of people in the audience who don’t know the historical facts in depth. But it became a technical exercise, rather than the play I wanted to write. I had to stop pretending that I could take a really objective approach on the history, particularly when writing a fictional play, so I said to myself, ‘What do I think of this? What’s the story I want to tell? What strikes me when reading the history? What are the modern resonances?’ Once I started thinking of the play in those terms it just opened up and became completely alive. Now it is more of a shape-shifting piece, a story that owes much more to modern theatrical forms than a Shakespeare play.

LC: ‘Holy Warriors’ spans several centuries. What made you write using such a wide perspective?

DE: It’s to do with the size of the theatre at the Globe; it’s similar to the Olivier at the National. They’re big stages, big theatres and they need big muscular stories. You need to animate them so it’s a visually and theatrically interesting experience for the audience. Those big theatres EAT narrative. I had a cup of tea with Howard Brenton who I think is possibly the best living playwright that’s written for the Globe. The first thing he said to me was, ‘Keep the story going. This place eats story’.

LC: What specific techniques have you used when writing for the Globe stage?

DE: Because you don’t have scenery at the Globe it’s all about bodies in space. You need to keep that big stage alive. You don’t often see very long scenes at the Globe. An actor can say ‘We’re in Dover’ and the audience accept it in a way that would be naff in a theatre with a roof on. Howard Brenton said to me, ‘Don’t be afraid of being bold like that’. In the Globe walking an actor around a column and saying ‘One year later’ works brilliantly, yet you would never do that at the National. It’s not that plays at the Globe use more direct address than you’d see in a theatre with a roof on, it’s just that the relationship is so unmediated between the play and the audience, that’s what gives it its directness. When you’ve got no roof and a full house of 700 people standing, it’s a very direct dynamic.

LC: You have 18 actors in ‘Holy Warriors’. How many characters do you have?

DE: There are at least 40 characters and over 200 costumes. It’s thrilling writing for a big company because you can tell a different story in a different way. You’re more able to animate the stage with a company of eighteen than you can with a company of three. That’s important for a play like ‘Holy Warriors’ which has the Third Crusade at the heart of it. Obviously it’s one thing trying to tell the story of the Battle of Hattin with a dozen actors; it’s another thing trying to tell it with two.

Holy Warriors is on from 19th July – 24th August at Shakespeare’s Globe, for more information and to book tickets please click here.

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