Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Theatre review: The Heresy of Love

In addition to its classics and new commissions, Shakespeare's Globe now revives a more recent play with Helen Edmundson's verse drama The Heresy of Love, which makes for a good fit with the theatre's current "Justice & Mercy" season: Its story of a strict regime reinforcing lapsed rules and clashing with a nun resonates with Measure for Measure, while the Catholic Church using the threat of damnation to pull rank on secular powers has echoes in King John. The cast, meanwhile, is largely that of the current As You Like It, although they've gone to one of the Globe's past Rosalinds for the lead: Edmundson's play is inspired by the true story of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Naomi Frederick,) a 17th Century Mexican nun, also a much-loved poet and playwright, who became a close friend of the Spanish Viceroy's wife (Ellie Piercy,) and was commissioned to write plays for court occasions.

Her talents and popularity, however, will see her used as a pawn in a power struggle: The new Archbishop of Mexico, Aguiar y Sejas (Phil Whitchurch,) arrives from Spain with a personal mission to banish every secular text, all performance outside of the church, and any collaboration between the clergy and the country's secular rulers.

Snubbed for the position of Archbishop himself, the more liberal Bishop Santa Cruz (Anthony Howell) makes it his mission to take down his new rival. Sor Juana, with her close ties to the court as well as her secular writing, is the personification of what the Archbishop hates, but worse is that she's a woman: Monks could be celebrated writers of the Spanish Golden Age of theatre, and given how that worked out a nun's efforts could only be an improvement, but Aguiar y Sejas refuses to even look at a woman. So Edmundson's play not only brings a lot more female roles than usual onto the Globe's stage, but also a powerful feminist argument that had a couple of women in the audience excitedly applauding at times, as Sor Juana goes up against the Archbishop to defend her very right to think.

The play, and John Dove's production, also make light work of less promising material, like Sor Juana's extended take-down of the Archbishop's theological ideas in his opening sermon, as well as its subtext that Mexico needs to stop being so bloody Mexican. Frederick has exactly the combination of no-nonsense confidence with a touch of vulnerability to make the nun a compelling lead, while she's backed up by a good cast - Sophia Nomvete standing out as she often does, as her slave Juanita, who brings a more down-to-earth humour to the play's lofty spiritual arguments.

And it's inevitably the human weaknesses that bring the story towards a tragic conclusion, as Bishop Santa Cruz starts to have feelings towards Sor Juana that are less than priestly, her niece, the novice Angelica (Gwyneth Keyworth) falls for a courtier (Gary Shelford) and the jealous Sor Sebastiana (Rhiannon Oliver) uses both these facts to take revenge on the more celebrated sister. Michael Taylor's set design gives the lie to the theory that you can't bring much new personality to the Globe's stage, and the production as a whole is engrossing and uplifting.

The Heresy of Love by Helen Edmundson is booking in repertory until the 5th of September at Shakespeare's Globe.

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes including interval.

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