English Touring Theatre
Cambridge Arts Theatre
What started out as In Extremis at The Globe Theatre, 2006 has been reincarnated by the esteemed English Touring Theatre for a regional tour under a more commercial, but less fitting title: Eternal Love.
One argument to justify the name change is the play's premise: its radical protagonist Abelard argues that prayer in archaic Latin limits its accessibility, "For people who don't know Latin, let them pray in French!" But, while its former Latin title might be marginally less accessible, Eternal Love incorrectly shifts the focus of the play, which, to me, doesn't have a lot to do with love, eternal or otherwise.
Howard Brenton's critically acclaimed play tackles rich, philosophical territory and engages its audience in religious debate. For this reason, the not-so-secret romance between Abelard and his seventeen-year-old student Heloise is not the main point of focus and not what the audience invests in.
That is not to say that David Sturzaker and Jo Herbert are not brilliant as the two lovers; they perfectly embody their roles as "warriors in a war of ideas". The consistently accomplished cast serve Brenton's complex and controversial play (and its content), even if the title does not.
The simple set, designed by Michael Taylor, features bulbs hanging above the characters' heads like bright, inextinguishable ideas. As the play opens, even the functionality and perfection of a table is under dispute. Intellectual Peter Abelard exhausts his professor, unable to answer his persistent questions, attracting the attention of 12th Century French society, the King and a young, self-assured Eloise.
The free-willed lovers sweetly eat books for breakfast, but their relationship, leading to a child born out of wedlock and consummation on an altar, does little to win them favour. As his philosophy continues to open doors to new futures, Abelard, accused of letting Aristotle loose on holy scripture, becomes a dangerous figure in the eyes of the Church. His inappropriate relationship with Eloise gives Abelard's aggressors the fuel they require to quieten him.
Despite the heated sexual student-teacher relationship, the juiciest scenes occur between Eloise and Denise (Abelard's strong, caring sister, played beautifully by Rhiannon Oliver) and Abelard and Bernard of Clairvaux, who look similar but are fiercely opposed. Bernard (played sympathetically and intelligently by Sam Crane) accuses Abelard of having no faith in his ethics, whilst Abelard pertinently accuses Bernard in return of having no ethics in his faith.
The company's engaging female ensemble, made up of Holly Morgan, Daisy Hughes and Claire Bond, initially appear to be lumbered with playing the giggly girls, nodding and smiling at the men as they argue, but their range and talent becomes quite obvious as each slides into multiple roles, switching from nun to whore, for example, with seeming ease. (A conservative audience might be shocked by how Eternal Love pendulums from academic discussion to the profoundly explicit at times).
John Cummins and William Mannering also impress with impeccable comic timing as Alberic and Lotholf, the play's fools. The initially disgruntled, devout men do not take kindly to the uncomfortably pious and humble life in Clairvaux.
John Dove's simple staging succeeds in allowing the arguments to resonate in the space, but it occasionally feels too static, the large cast standing in semi circles behind the action. The touring production starts with some audience interaction and ends with a half-hearted jig but lacks some of the play's reverie and pageantry. This might occur more organically in an open thrust space, such as The Globe, rather than the more formal, end on stage at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge.
Minor details aside, Brenton's clear, contemporary language makes tangible the tugging between scientific reason and religious tradition. This deliberately anachronistic, witty play questions the extent to which Abelard’s powerful 12th century influence has been realised and reveals how much still remains in dispute.
Eternally determined, Peter Abelard (finally excommunicated for heresy in 1141) fought the cruel, the fanatical and the irrational elements of religion, until his very last (and in this case very convincing) "Amen."
Reviewer: Emily Hardy