Insights lost through over-emphasis

Theatre: Ousama; Brixton Shaw, London, SW2
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The Independent Culture
The (British) history books teach us that the Crusades were Holy Wars, conducted with the utmost dignity and high moral concern. But they take on a different complexion when seen from the point of view of Ousama Bin Munquith, the 11th-century Muslim scholar and nobleman, with a sharp humour and a developed sense of irony. The collaboration between Corin Redgrave and the actor Nadim Sawalha (who plays Ousama) represents a microcosmic East-West detente and is intended as an affirmation of Christian-Muslim relations, reminding us (if we need to be reminded) of the ancient civilisation and scientific sophistication of Islamic culture at a time when Western Europeans were marauding barbarians.

But unfortunately, Redgrave is a celebrated actor, not a director, and the one talent does not necessarily lead to the other. Even if it did, the form that Sawalha has chosen - the one-man monologue - is theatrically deadening in any but the most inventive of hands. A further body-blow to the project is Sara Salih's translation / adaptation of Ousama's memoirs, which contains no dramatic momentum or shaping structure, and adopts a tone of such bland, anachronistic modernity that all sense of amazement at the contemporary relevance of these 11th-century insights is lost through over-emphasis.

Sawalha is compelled to fall back on his not-inconsiderable charm, and the atmospheric setting created for him by designer Antony Lamble: a cool chamber in the palace of Shayzar, Syria, with beautiful tiles on the floor, a latticework window behind, a round brass table carrying bowls of delicious- looking food, and on another table a tray of pomegranates, grapes and fresh figs. We glimpse the ancient culture of the Middle East, but we do not hear it.

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