Writer: Howard Brenton
Music: William Lyons
Director: John Dove
Reviewer: Edie Ranvier
On hearing the title of this play, you could be forgiven for and expecting a sequel to Love, Actually or some similar schmaltz. On hearing that Howard Benton’s new play Eternal Love is indeed a love story, but one doomed from the start and weighed down with some obscure medieval theological debates, many theatre-goers could be forgiven for groaning in bewilderment. But the tale of Abelard (David Sturzaker) and Heloise (Jo Herbert), doomed lovers in twelfth-century Paris, often seems eclipsed by the great debate between Abelard, who starts applying Aristotelian logic to the Bible, and Bernard of Clairvaux (finely understudied by Kevin Leslie) who maintains that reason cannot be applied to God and faith.
Benton’s robust script combines with John Dove’s energetic directing to pull off the feat of making this debate relevant to a twenty-first century audience. Meanwhile, although their story is indisputably tragic and brutal, we don’t even like the main couple that much. Partly this is because Sturzaker and Herbert’s chemistry is not entirely convincing. But it also because they are rather self-absorbed characters. Abelard, in particular, appears as a fanatic egoist aloof from those around him – even perhaps, ultimately, from Heloise. Bernard, on the other hand, a perennially ailing traditionalist who hobbles and vomits his way around for twenty years resisting Abelard’s new teaching, might be rather crazed but possesses an appealing earnestness.
The play is finely researched, from the stylish but distinctly medieval set to William Lyons’ score and his twelfth-century music ensemble, complete with hand bells. The authenticity extends to a delightfully grotesque side to the play, even in the most serious moments. In one especially tense exchange between Abelard and Heloise’s uncle Fulbert (Edward Peel), the latter’s cousins (Tim Frances and Tom Kanji) gleefully repeat his angry words, cackling like pantomime henchmen. The frequent use of a convent as a setting affords many opportunities for bawdy humour.
Just as the play balances a deeply tragic love story with plenty of nun jokes, it also balances authenticity and sophistry with ideas that resonate today. Some of these are perhaps necessarily simple: Clervaux’ nutty charm hardly detracts from his close resemblance to Abu Hamza, while Fulbert’s negation of his neice’s sexual agency and obsession with her ‘innocence’ brings to mind today’s patriarchs and traditionalists. But the play avoids the trap of becoming a diatribe against the forces of darkness and conservatism. It also avoids descending into the hagiography of a rock’n’roll couple whose free-thinking anticipated the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and perhaps even the non-literalist interpretation of holy texts.
Instead, we are treated to a thoughtful exploration of the eternal theme of love – both divine and human. Many in the audience will find the tension between reason and faith relevant to their own beliefs. Still more will relate to the treatment of perceptions of marriage: when it is done in secret in spite of Heloise’s reluctance, Fulbert and his cousins strikingly consider it no less abominable than illicit sex.Abelard and Heloise’s love affair is emphatically situated in its own bubble, separate from the world: this is a recognisable predicament which also helps to explain the preoccupation with secrecy in medieval literature. In the context, we can easily understand Heloise’s refusal to marry Abelard publicly, and their pursuers’ insistence on a public union.
There is always a risk, with both medieval themes and philosophical arguments, that all but the most erudite members of the public will be put off. But this is a Globe Theatre production, and while exploring subjects usually reserved for academia it radiates life right up to the signature closing-dance.
Runs until 22nd March 2014
Photo credit: Stephen Vaughan