BATS Theatre
March 1-8 | Reviewed by Kate Blackhurst

PHILIP Braithwaite’s latest play imagines the retelling of an old biblical legend full of adultery, prophecy and dependence on spiritual guidance. The programme notes explain that it ‘questions our sense of values, and asks whether there is such a thing as justice.’

King David of Israel (Alex Greig) has an adulterous affair with Bathsheba (Amy Tarleton) after he sees her bathing; a scene which is excellently recreated in silhouette behind a sheet. Nathan the Seer (Tony Hopkins) prophecies doom and disaster and when David asks what must be done to prevent this coming to pass, he answers, ‘just leave the woman alone.’ Of course David cannot do this because ‘man is a slave to his desires’ and so he sets a chain of events in motion which can only lead to destruction for at least one of the cast members.

The humour of the play, and there is a lot of it, comes from the juxtaposition of the historic with the contemporary. One minute the characters are using toads as military weapons, the next they are producing a biro with a flourish. There are spear carriers in togas, and a king in a kaftan and rope sandals, alongside Zadok the advisor (Jonny Potts) in a pinstriped suit with a newspaper and a Hilda Ogden mug.

The language also mixes eras. Amy Tarleton’s Bathsheba is given a modern interpretation so that we don’t just see her as a victim of seduction. When she is told, ‘I am David, King of Israel’, she replies flippantly, ‘I know’. With non-biblical double entendre, David threatens her, ‘You will lie with me or you will feel the tip of my sword’. She tells him that she will succumb to his wishes if only he will, ‘Just be nice to me. Treat me with respect’.

Jonny Potts is excellent as the unctuous advisor twisting facts and words to suit the situation. He wouldn’t be out of place in Parliament as he evades straight questions and argues the finer points of scripture in legal wrangling and interpretation. ‘On the one had the 5th amendment is quite an important piece of regulation, but on the other hand there is an eye for eye…’ He is the consummate spin doctor complete with finger pointing, open handed shrugs and conciliatory gestures, claiming, ‘My advice was sound according to the facts that I had at the time’.

Alex Greig portrays the fickle David with a commendable split personality. He is childlike and petulant seeking confirmation and only hearing what he wants to hear. He chooses which bits of scripture to follow – ‘I can only do what God allows. God will tread as he treads’ – and suggests that all leaders are vain. He can switch to a chilling control freak at will and his forcing of Nathan to bend to kiss his feet is a strong and pivotal scene.

He asserts that ‘The Lord delights in mercy and compassion’ but this is in direct contrast to the rough treatment meted out to the prisoner, Anton the Thief (Benjamin Fransham) who has the temerity to steal a pebble from the Ark of the Covenant and to denounce the design of the world as the work of a court jester. Zadok warns David that his policy of showing mercy can hurt his ratings – tougher sentencing laws anyone?

When Benjamin Fransham also plays Uriah the Hittite, he does so with raging testosterone and swashbuckling excess. The award-giving scene is another highlight, no matter what our current concerns with binge drinking. In the hands of a lesser actor and director, this doubling of characters could be messy, but here the dramatic irony is enhanced when David sees Uriah in Anton, because of course the audience is in on the joke – it is the same person.

David Lawrence directs his characters with strength and purpose, but he loses his way with the overall vision, or perhaps this is a fault of the writing. There are potent lines such as ‘Knowledge is God’s gift to men’ and, ‘there is a shape to truth and justice. We will have atonement or we will have nothing’, but these are negated by the use of naff music and ‘blinky lightbulb’ to represent the Ark of the Covenant. It is almost as if Lawrence, who notes in the programme that this is the closest he has come to believing in the existence of a god, doesn’t quite have faith in his own convictions.