Howard Brenton’s In Extremis received its world premiere this past weekend at Shakespeare’s Globe (Friday 1 September 2006, previews from 27 August), where it’s the final production in Dominic Dromgoole’s inaugural summer season as Globe artistic director (See News, 11 Jan 2006).

Based on the 12th-century French story of the love affair between Abelard and Heloise, an intellectual abbot and his young prioress, played by Oliver Boot (pictured) and Sally Bretton, In Extremis is another play full of controversial themes by the author of The Romans in Britain and last year’s Paul at the National. In Extremis is directed by John Dove and continues in rep at the Globe until 7 October 2006.

First night critics were impressed with the play, enjoying the “gripping” story of the two lovers. They said that, although Brenton takes liberties with the original story and some of the text is slightly jarring, his political and moral points are presented with clarity and put into frighteningly modern contexts.

  • Carole Woddis on – “In Extremis… is not only a rumbustious historical drama but, in (the protagonists’) fiercely argued stance against Christian orthodoxy, the most timely play-for-today in a modern world perilously poised between secularism and religious fundamentalism…. Brenton has inevitably also taken liberties in the storytelling…. The delight of In Extremis is not just about its religious jousting. Its intellectual vigour comes as much from the criticism Brenton levels at Abelard and Heloise's hedonistic libertarianism…. in director John Dove's hands and with terrific supporting performances from the ever dependable Sheila Reid, Colin Hurley and Fred Ridgeway, Brenton's liberating play finds the perfect platform on the Globe's stage.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian - “The last play we saw about Abelard and Heloise was the work of Ronald Millar, one of Mrs Thatcher's speech writers, and was all about sex. This new, vastly superior one is by Howard Brenton and is dominated by ideas…. Brenton's interest lies in their intellectual opposition to the Cistercian abbot, Bernard of Clairvaux. The lovers stand for the application of Aristotelian logic to holy scripture; Bernard is a self-denying mystic who believes that faith is a gift from God. In John Dove's lively production… Jack Laskey's Bernard lights up the stage. His whippet-like frame seems full of the tense energy of belief. Oliver Boot's Abelard possesses a similar certitude but also suggests the hypocrisy of a man who uses an altar as a sexual bed. If anything, Sally Bretton's Heloise emerges as the more admirable figure…. But the interest lies in seeing how Brenton's exploration of medieval theology reveals his own divided soul.”

  • Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard - This “intellectually bracing offering from Howard Brenton” is “a splendid close to Dominic Dromgoole's inaugural season at the Bankside helm…. Brenton's subject is those infamous 12th-century French lovers, Abelard and Heloise…. He strips away the layers of received wisdom and starts anew, presenting their story in an engagingly pacy and, at times, refreshingly comic manner…. Brenton holds in admirable equilibrium the elements of sexual desire, non-conformism and philosophical ideology that fuelled the couple's relationship…. Yet as a host of fine supporting turns in John Dove’s assured production illustrates, French society wasn't ready for two people to share ideas instead of marriage vows.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times - “True, there are some shallow, silly moments, and more than a few that will leave serious historians chewing at their parchments in dismay, but Brenton sees Peter Abélard, in particular, as much more than a maverick priest who traded his testicles for love. Rather, he is a brilliant thinker and neo-Aristotelian dialectician who tried to reconcile a new humanism with a genuine belief in God. Brenton runs up against the old problem of chronicle drama. He does not always find a modern idiom that adequately substitutes 12th-century speech, which means there are lines that plonk rather than zing…. However, the tale… is undeniably gripping…. John Dove’s production bangs along at a quick pace and is well enough acted, although Sally Bretton has yet to find a way of embodying Heloise’s intellectual gravity as well as her eager eroticism… Oliver Boot, however… is energetic, charismatic, mentally restless, passionate and as offhandedly vain as Abelard undoubtedly was.”

    - by Caroline Ansdell