This is a short and very welcome return for Howard Brenton’s vigorous and compelling re-telling of the Abelard and Heloise medieval love story. Oliver Boot and Sally Bretton repeat last September’s performances in the leading roles, and John Bett is again the apoplectic William of Champeaux, exasperated by Peter Abelard’s humanist proto-Protestantism, and Colin Hurley a plumply and hilariously reprised King Louis VI.
Jack Laskey is back, too, giving an outstanding performance as Bernard of Clairvaux, the masochistic, foot-licking ascetic Cistercian abbot who is Abelard’s intellectual duellist in the struggle to establish a church that anticipates the Renaissance and pits the power of mystery against the logical arguments of philosophy.
New to the cast are Eleanor Bron as the unruffled Mother Superior in the nunnery where the lovers have “honeymoon” sex under the altar, and Paul Copley as Heloise’s fussing guardian, whose band of agricultural ruffians inflict the castration ritual on her lover shortly afterwards. Brenton’s dramatic scenography – at the hedonistic court of Louis, in the religious disputes, in the defiant tragedy of the lovers’ separation – is vividly realised in John Dove’s thoroughly entertaining production.
Brenton’s play - first written for the University of California, Davis, ten years ago - was an unexpectedly successful coda to lasts year’s summer Globe season, and proves a delightful curtain-raiser to this year’s repertory.
- Michael Coveney
NOTE: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from September 2006 and this production’s original run at Shakespeare’s Globe.
Suddenly, after an absence of a decade, Howard Brenton is back. To a new generation, he may only be known either as the author of the now notorious The Romans in Britain (revived earlier this year by Sam West in Sheffield) or for his association as a writer for the popular BBC spy series Spooks. In the Seventies and Eighties, however, he was one of the country's leading political playwrights. Now suddenly he has produced two new plays in the past nine months and both about the nature of faith.
For a Marxist atheist, that is more than interesting. After Paul at the National last year, In Extremis takes a typically provocative approach, this time to two of the most famous lovers in history, Abelard and Heloise.
Brenton wouldn't be Brenton without a political slant. So In Extremis, the story of their passionate, illicit affair is not only a rumbustious historical drama but, in their fiercely argued stance against Christian orthodoxy, the most timely play-for-today in a modern world perilously poised between secularism and religious fundamentalism.
Rationalists at a time when it certainly was not popular to be so, like Brecht's The Life of Galileo – with which In Extremis shares many points of similarity, not least irreverence – Brenton tells the story of his 12th-century adventurers within a rich dialectical debate about Faith as a God-given mystery and Abelard's championing of Reason as a tool for understanding God more fully.
Unlike Paul, the scales here seem rather too weighed against Abelard's nemesis, the scourging, austerely extreme Bernard of Clairvaux (Jack Laskey, wonderfully ascetic and haunted). Brenton has inevitably also taken liberties in the storytelling.
Abelard was older than handsome young Oliver Boot who plays him here, Sally Bretton's Heloise a famed scholar in her own right. Intellectual equals, he was 15-20 years her senior. But here, Boot, ardent and eloquent. and Bretton, too modern but set the difficult task of straddling infatuation and independence, look the same age.
However, 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. Like one of his previous plays about the Shelleys, Bloody Poetry, their idealism is shown to have profound failings.
Whatever the quibbles, 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. Brenton once likened theatre to a ‘bear-pit' where really ‘savage insights' could be displayed. The joy of artistic director Dominic Dromgoole's new Globe regime is that once more topical drama is taking thrilling flight.