More like Enduring Long at nearly three hours, who thought the crusades could be compelling? Yet writer/director Jesse Briton follows up his award-winning debut, ‘Bound’ (2010), with another outstanding piece.
Already published by Faber, this historical epic follows the story of young Matthew (Roe), as he and his friends leave their farming community to join the charismatic bishop Peter (Harland) on the First Crusade. While he is away, Matthew’s sister Marie (Ballantine) struggles to run the farm and keep it from the clutches of a creepy churchman (Andy McLeod).
The performance is seated in the round (hipster haircuts abound) with a minimal props, subtle lighting and simple cloth costumes, (today is the hottest day of the year and I’m glad I’m not wearing a helmet or robes).
The first half of the play focuses on clichéd, small-town family bonds: Matthew is marrying his pregnant girlfriend and finds a substitute for his unsupportive father in the bishop. His friends include Georges (the voice of reason), Hugh (a ‘beautiful idiot’) and a peeping Tom, Gaston.
Of the otherwise histrionic women, Ballantine is brilliant as the silent, enigmatic Marie. Beckley underplays the father to compliment Harland’s intense bishop (I recommend umbrellas for front row seats). The script and strong cast breathe life into these otherwise stock characters, as does the haunting use of traditional polyphonic Corsican singing.
In fact, throughout the play Briton pulls all the stops with a veritable feast of song, dance and well-choreographed sword fights.
The second half of the play focuses on the crusade itself, following the knights from the siege of Antioch to the bloody ‘retrieval’ of Jerusalem. Meanwhile things get worse on the farm, no thanks to Matthew’s perpetually unhelpful father.
Briton’s direction shines here, as he seamlessly runs both stories on stage simultaneously. He juxtaposes the rise of the heroic son with the fall of the patriarch cinematically; they deliver impassioned monologues standing back-to-back although miles apart in the narrative.
Both the tragic and comic elements of the play gain momentum: Matthew and Gaston make convincing transitions from naïveté to traumatised disillusion. Moncef Mansur is hilarious as Ibn, an Arab would-be poet in Antioch, whose sympathetic portrayal pulls him and his wife from the brink of caricature. Briton alludes to contemporary East/West relations without explicit moralising.
The play sometimes feels as long as the actual crusades. A few scenes drag, others could be omitted (how many weddings does one character need?) and there are a few false endings.
Overall however, Briton redeems a potentially dull story with a sharp script, creative direction and touching characterisation. Enduring, but worthwhile.