by Howard Brenton.
English Touring Theatre and Shakespeare’s Globe Tour to 12 April 2014.
Runs 2hr 25min One interval.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 7 February at Cambridge Arts Theatre.
An explosion of wit and ideas in a swiftly-moving story.
This play’s moral might be that you shouldn’t upset too many people at once. Bad enough in early 12th-century France for priest Peter Abelard to have a sexual relationship with young Heloise d’Argenteuil. But to be a theological rebel too wasn’t asking for trouble, but banging on the door demanding it.
Yet Howard Brenton isn’t pointing morals in his 2006 play, originally seen at Shakespeare’s Globe as In Extremis. He’s examining the contrary pulses of orthodoxy and rebellion, a theological and human dialectic centuries before Karl Marx popularised the term.
The strong desire between Heloise and Abelard is evident. But sex is more spoken-of than displayed, despite some altar-top clinchings, for the lovers’ passion is bound with their intelligence, love of ideas and of life. The passionate inquiry in Jo Herbert’s Heloise is contrasted well by Tim Frances as cleric and teacher William of Champeaux, sitting slumped and defeated by original arguments, delivered with joy in intellectual progress rather than any personal showing-off by David Sturzaker’s Abelard.
Intellectual victory is dangerous; Frances is also one of the clerical court chorically condemning Abelard when Bernard of
Clairvaux (the star-performer among clerics of his day) denounces him on eleven theological counts. Sam Crane stands up for Bernard, whose aggressive, emotive theology of pain contrasts Abelard’s joyous infusion of divinity and life.
Frances doubles as one of the vengeful members of Heloise’s family, who carry-out the castration which remains the best-known part of the story (”medieval violence” as the publicity puts it).
Yet the play, vigorous and purposeful throughout, achieves its greatest maturity when the pair meet in later life. Time and experience has cooled bright youthful ardour (as in the last pages of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong) but the pair’s separation has meant a correspondence which ensures their ideas will never die, by going the medieval version of viral. The point’s firmly made in a wonderful final anachronism.
The sudden line-up of swinging nuns and canons to end might seem strange divorced from the Globe context, but John Dove’s clear production generally adapts well to its indoor format. It’s an invigorating, inspiriting experience.
Abelard: David Sturzaker.
Heloise: Jo Herbert.
Bernard of Clairvaux: Sam Crane.
Fulbert/Bishop: Edward Peel.
Denise/Nun: Rhiannon Oliver.
William of Champeaux/Cousin 1: Tim Frances.
Louis VI: Julius D’Silva.
Alberic: John Cummins.
Lotholf: William Mannering.
Helene/Working Woman: Sally Edwards.
Berthode: Holly Morgan.
Marie: Daisy Hughes.
Francine: Claire Bond.
Cousin 2: Tom Kanji.
Student 1: Robert Heard.
Student 2: Kevin Leslie.
Student 3: Sid Sagar.
Director: John Dove.
Designer: Michael Taylor.
Lighting: Paul Russell.
Sound: Derrick Zieba.
Composer/Musical Director: William Lyons.
Choreographer: Siân Williams.
Fight director: Terry King.
Assistant director: Joshua Roche.
11-15 Feb 7.30pm Mat Thu & Sat 2.30pm Audio-described Thu 2.30pm Captioned Thu 7.30pm Hall for Cornwall Truro 01872 262466 www.hallforcornwall.co.uk
25 Feb-1 March 7.30pm Mat Wed & Sat 2.30pm Audio-described Sat 2.30pm Captioned Thu Grand Theatre Wolverhampton 01902 429212 www.grandtheatre.co.uk
4-8 March 7.30pm Mat Thu 2pm Sat 2.30pm Audio-described Fri & Sat 2.30pm Captioned Wed Darlington Civic Theatre 01325 486555 www.darlingtoncivic.co.uk
11-15 March 7.30pm Mat Thu & Sat 2pm Grand Theatre Blackpool 01253 290190 www.blackpoolgrand.co.uk
18-22 March 7.30pm Mat Wed & Sat 2.30pm King’s Theatre Edinburgh 0131 529 6000 www.edtheatres.com
25-29 March 7.30pm Mat Wed & Sat 2.30pm Malvern Festival Theatre 01684 892277 www.malvern-theatres.co.uk
1-5 April 7.45pm Mat Thu & Sat 2.30pm Audio-described Sat 2.30pm Theatre Royal Brighton 0844 871 7650 www.atgtickets.com/brighton
9-12 April 7.30pm Mat Thu & Sat 2.30pm Marlowe Theatre Canterbury 01227 787787 www.marlowetheatre.com