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In Extremis

Howard Brenton
Shakespeare's Globe
(2006)

Production photo

The story of (Peter) Abelard and his Heloise has, for close on a millennium, been one of the great love stories. Now, for Shakespeare's Globe, of all places, Howard Brenton has breathed new life into the French tale.

Brenton is an eclectic writer who over the years has caused controversy with plays such as The Romans in Britain and Pravda. In Extremis which closes The Edges of Rome Season is far closer to this writer's last play, Paul seen at the National last year.

With his attitudes towards religion, philosophy and sex, Oliver Boot as Abelard was way ahead of his time and his book-loving, intellectual but very sexy Heloise (Sally Bretton) might also have been far more comfortable had she been born in the 1960s.

Abelard is a disputatious man, with long unkempt hair and beard, whose dazzling use of logic charms and antagonises and roughly equal measure.

Soon, the student talks down his teacher and becomes the Magister. He then woos his prize pupil, the attractive, blonde-haired seventeen-year-old Heloise. Initially, her naive uncle and guardian, Canon Fulbert (played by Fred Ridgeway, showing that he is as good with a relatively straight role as with clowns), is delighted.

It is only when he discovers that not only is his niece being educated in the ways of Aristotle but also those of Ovid's Art of Love that he becomes venomously angry, possibly as much due to his own embarrassment as at the girl's violation.

The vengeance that is wreaked on Abelard is horrible to behold, but in a Globe season that has built its reputation on the gore of Titus Andronicus, why should one get over excited about the odd castration?

At the same time as pursuing his love, this twelfth-century mega-celebrity carries on a religious debate with the ascetic, half-starved madman, Bernard of Clairvaux, played by a very brave Jack Laskey. It is not every actor that wants to prove his character's values by licking the foot of a fellow not once but twice.

Across the decades, the two priests meet on several occasions, twice in front of the crude and corpulent Louis VI, played with relish by Colin Hurley. Eventually, the wordplay of one and the faith of the other probably reach a stalemate with neither the overall victor, though both would believe that they were.

Eventually, the great lovers are condemned to separate lives in religious orders, in Heloise's case under the benign eye of a hilarious Abbess played by Sheila Reid.

In the hour up to the interval, Brenton and his director, John Dove expertly balance long discursive periods with lighter comic moments. After the interval, the very black comedy rather takes over in the manner of Blackadder and arguably diminishes both the love story and the religious debate.

Overall, this retelling of the story of Abelard and Heloise is a major success. It should encourage Dominic Dromgoole to commission more contemporary writers to provide work to complement the Globe's core productions which must always primarily be drawn from the Shakespearean canon.

The strengths of this production lie in the rich, meaty contemporary language that Brenton gives to both his hero and heroine and a solid underlying plot. Many would be daunted at the prospect of two-and-a-quarter hours observing a medieval play about religion but with the injection of numerous ribald laughs, the crowds should flock to the Globe this autumn.

Rivka Jacobson reviewed the 2007 revival

Reviewer: Philip Fisher