Writer: Howard Brenton
Director: John Dove
Reviewer: Mark Clegg
Although not as famous as other doomed lovers like Romeo and Juliet or Arthur and Guinevere, the story of Abelard and Eloise is more rooted in fact and history than the others, and is consequently perhaps the more emotional tale.
Set in Medieval France, the story sees Abelard the philosopher and his student Heloise begin an affair that shocks the locals almost as much as his challenging of the ideas and ideals of the church by referencing the works of Aristotle. Displeasing Heloise’s family and the local clergy is not the best of ideas and once the zealous Abbott Bernard of Clairvaux takes it upon himself to oppose Abelard’s heretical views, the fate of the lovers is sealed.
Quite frankly this may seem a little dry as a brief synopsis, but this production from English Touring Theatre and Shakespeare’s Globe is enthralling, accessible and beautifully constructed. The script touches upon many themes and Abelard’s Aristotelian arguments are thought-provoking even today. Meanwhile Heloise is far from a bland love interest and her conversations with her lover show that she is more than a match for his intellect. Their combined fate once their tryst is discovered spirals downwards over many years and is well paced within the script to allow for a dramatically satisfactory and even slightly rueful denouement.
The cast are simply perfect. David Sturzaker plays Abelard with conviction and sincerity and Jo Herbert’s Heloise has a beautiful balance between spirited and stoic. Julius D’Silva is an imposing Louis VI and Edward Peel is excellent as Heloise’s betrayed uncle Fulbert. All other rôles are equally well cast however the standout performance is Sam Crane as Bernard of Clairvaux. The rôle could be interpreted as Abelard’s villainous nemesis but the script and Crane’s performance are never as lazy as that. Crane’s Bernard is immersive and eccentric with hints of madness among his rhetoric. The rôle brings to mind Amadeus with Bernard being Saleri to Abelard’s Mozart.
Thankfully the inherent tragedy of the piece is balanced with some well-placed and genuinely funny comedy. John Cummins and William Mannering as Alberic and Lotholf fill the traditional comic double act rôles very much in the vein of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The script has some great one-liners and John Dove’s direction features some lovely little bits of business that elicit appreciative chuckles from the audience.
The set is simple and functional, representing everything from a field to a chapel with the use of minimal props and furniture. The costumes are impressively authentic as is the incidental music as written by William Lyons and played by a live three-piece band.
Despite the tragedy inherent in the story, this production does not tug hard enough at the emotions and suffers a little bit for that. However it is always fascinating, frequently amusing and certainly deserves to be seen. It may even provoke a theological debate in the car on the way home.
Runs until: 8th March 2014