SEX, STRIFE, AND HOT THEOLOGY: ABELARD AND HELOISE RISE AGAIN
“Theology in Paris these days” says tubby, jocose King Louis VI of France, “is more interesting than wrestling matches or dancing bears”. It’s 1115 AD, and Peter Abelard’s Aristotelian rationalism and rock-star following is enraging fundamentalist Bible-bashers like Bernard of Clairvaux. Down south they’re burning heretics, and Abelard’s love affair with his 17-year-old pupil adds a dash of scandal and still more risk. No dancing bear could possibly compete.
It may seem rareified to offer a slanging-match about Platonic Essentialism and the Trinity to a modern audience, even laced with sex, persecution and castration. But few playwrights are more vigorously engaging than Howard Brenton when he gets his teeth into moments in history when ideas drove change. Only lately he gave us modern Chinese politics in The Arrest of Ai Weiwei, risky Reformation zeal in Anne Boleyn, and Charles II versus Parliament in 55 Days. And it is a good move by English Touring Theatre – in its 21st year – to revive this 2006 Globe production under John Dove’s direction. Not least because across the world today we have our own fundamentalists: Christian, Muslim, atheist.
The story of Abelard and Heloise – love, scandal , separation and old age as an Abbot and Abbess exchanging letters about love and God – is vividly played out. It’s a spare set with an early-music band overhead, a curtained door and bare birch-trees whose silver branches leap and divide like springing thought itself. Brenton has no fear of the occasional almost Pythonesque moment as theologians, chancers and grandees bicker over the Trinity, with some wonderful exchanges. Abelard refers to a “stupid Bishop” and the King asks menacingly “Could there be such a thing?”. Abelard, deadpan, replies “There are many wonders in this world”. Gotcha!
Alongside theology and politics runs the personal – as it must, since the core of Abelard’s new thinking was that human love and the body are not ungodly. Bernard thinks them so, and leads starveling, self-flagellating monks driven into visionary frenzy by mouldy ergot bread. David Sturzaker makes a commanding passionate Abelard, Jo Herbert his thoughtful, intellectual and physically joyful lover. Rejecting the chains of marriage, defying her possessive uncle (Edward Peel), she seems a 21st century feminist trapped in the 12th. Motherhood does not tame her: “We are not a family, we are warriors in a war of ideas”. But the most compellingly odd performance is Sam Crane as the monk Bernard, his voice vibrating with staccato celibate tension, averring that “There is nothing to teach or learn, all has been Revealed!” . His only pleasure is in priestly patriarchal authority, forever calling people “Little one” .
In bright moments and dark, the play balances comedy, sincerity and brutality (the horrid castrators purr “We’re farmers, come to do farmer’s work..”) . And after the final catharsis and the ultimate excellent joke, its Globe origins are honoured in a dancing curtain call. As if, indoors on a chilly Cambridge evening, we were in a summer night in the great wooden O, happy groundlings enjoying its generosity and glee. I am glad I caught it on the wing. It flies on. Tour dates below
English touring theatre: www.ett.org.uk On tour till 12 April