The Heresy of Love

Helen Edmundson

Royal Shakespeare Company

Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

From 02 February 2012 to 09 March 2012

Review by Kevin Quarmby

In 1695, at the age of 47, Sor (Sister) Juana Inés de la Cruz died of the plague. Her life in Mexico City centred on the Convent of the Order of St Jeronimo and the Court of the Spanish Viceroy. Secular and non-secular demands on Juana’s phenomenal writing skills tore at the spiritual foundations of this remarkable woman’s life. In an age when, and for a religious society in which, female scholarship and intellectual creativity were viewed as a threat to phallocentric Catholic dogma, Juana’s talent and charismatic beauty were tantamount to heresy. Helen Edmundson’s wonderful play, The Heresy of Love, explores this woman’s life with a passion and intellectual rigour worthy of its subject.

The Swan Theatre’s thrust stage is bare but for the occasional strategically-placed clerical throne or portable stool. The rear stage flat is painted with a huge detail of Christ’s head at the moment of the Passion, the Crown of Thorns piercing his brow as his face turns sullenly to the earth below. Above this effective altar-piece, a typical Baroque ‘sunburst’ spreads its stylized golden rays.

This backdrop is pierced by concealed entrances and panels that accommodate a semi-circular sliding cage-like barrier that separates the Convent from the outside world. Like prison bars, this curving statement of separateness and isolation is regularly positioned and repositioned, so offering many spatial opportunities within an otherwise sparsely staged play. Even Juana’s writing desk disappears into the giant painted backdrop like a jigsaw puzzle piece of furniture. Visually, everything returns to Christ’s image just as everything revolves around Juana’s marriage to her spiritual Lord.

Where there is a new world, far removed from the centre of political and spiritual power, there are new opportunities for advancement and glory. Bishop Santa Cruz, a scheming politician and climber played with disturbing malice by Raymond Coulthard, is principal opportunist. Santa Cruz sees Juana’s obvious success as Court favourite as his means ultimately to control Mexico. His plans are scuppered by the arrival of the fanatically devout Archbishop Aguiar, whose penance and self-inflicted pain cannot mask his mortal fear of women and the temptation they might offer.

Stephen Boxer, as the tortured torturer Aguiar, gives yet again a magnificent RSC performance. His Archbishop Aguiar is an evangelical fanatic who sees the Inquisition as the means to cleanse a wicked world. Sor Juana personifies all he fears about female kind. When Aguiar finally dares confront his nun adversary, Boxer fills the stage with malice and anger, his hand gestures mockingly attacking and taunting the unfortunate woman as he denounces her scholarship and writing as dangerous heresy. Juana is condemned to a life of intellectual silence.

Men may fight their political battles, but it is Sor Juana who is the casualty of war. Catherine McCormack excels as the nun whose dubious past haunts her present, and whose intellect and wit are sharper than all those around her. In McCormack’s capable hands, Juana is a multi-dimensional character whose flaws are as tangible as her creative virtues, and whose erotic allure as believable as her absolute devotion to spiritual duty.

Juana might be pitted against her scheming clerics, but she has the Viceroy’s Court to defend her. Catherine Hamilton is excellent as the Vicereine, desperate to offer a child to her effete husband and seriously supportive of Juana’s obvious literary flair. Likewise, Simon Thorp offers a strong performance as Don Hernando, the lascivious corruptor of young novitiates who employs Juana to construct love poems to entrap his paramours. When the Vicereine successfully bears a son, the Court returns to the pleasures and safety of Spain. Aguiar is left in control and Juana is friendless.

Juana’s success also attracts envy from within the Convent. Although Mother Marguerita (Diana Kent) is tolerant of Juana’s writing as long as no suspicion falls on her community, bitter resentment festers within Teresa Banham’s hauntingly sinister Sister Sebastiana. Sebastiana succeeds where Aguiar might potentially fail. By pointing the finger of suspicion at Juana, Sebastiana leads ultimately to her rival’s downfall. 

Father Antonio (Geoffrey Beevers) plays Juana’s confessor and supporter, tasks that sit uncomfortably with his status as Inquisitorial representative of the Spanish State. Beevers excels as the sympathetic cleric, forced by circumstance to uphold the edicts of his superiors. Equally fine is the performance of Dona Croll, Juana’s slave Juanita, whose love and meddlesome care are reminiscent of the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. Juanita cannot prevent the tragedy that follows, but her own release from slavery is a moment of powerful poignancy, and a reminder that intellectual oppression went hand in hand with social oppression. Whose slavery was the most despicable, or deserving of the most sympathy? The enforced slavery of Juanita, or the self-inflicted religious ‘slavery’ of Sor Juana? These questions permeate Edmundson’s moving play.

Nancy Meckler has delivered an intellectually challenging and stimulating play with subtlety and finesse. The performances are flawless. Every character is beautifully observed and represented. We believe in these characters and we care about their world. The issues raised by Edmundson’s play might resonate with a twenty-first century audience attune to feminist historical criticism, but this is no polemic, no dialectic. The Heresy of Love is instead a passionate and thought-provoking drama that explores the role of male-dominated religious fanaticism as a suppressor of female artistic expression. This one woman’s plight represents are far wider condemnation of female creativity that (hopefully) may now be consigned to the history books as an anomaly of a bygone age.