Swearing nuns, foot licking, testicular termination and altar sex; with nary a nay, a nonny or a not to be, Howard Brenton's In Extremis returns to the Globe following a much lauded 2006 run.
Ostensibly the story of Abelard and Heloise, a sort of Middle Ages Romeo and Juliette with Popes, Breton's take rapidly thrusts us into the theological battleground of 12th century France. In the blue corner we have horny lothario, poet, composer, theologian and follower of that notable heretic, Aristotle: Peter (Pierre) Abelard; played with great self-conviction by Oliver Boot. Pulling no punches in the red corner is Jack Laskey's jittery Bernard of Clairvaux, a monk of the old school: some bread, no water and self abuse of the non pleasurable variety. Shouting from the sidelines is Heloise: young, far from dumb and full of Abelard's cum; Sally Bretton's independent woman.
Not enough that Abelard upsets the clerical apple-cart by teaching logical thought and discussion as the path to understanding God, he also conducts an illicit affair with 17 year old Heloise, niece of canon Fulbert of Notre Dame. It is the couple's twenty-first century attitudes to cohabitation (she won't compromise her ideals by conforming to a woman's place in marriage) that lead to one of history's great romantic tragedies. But love, in it's wonderful way, wins out as it's want to do. So despite rehabilitation under Eleanor Bron's worldly wise chief penguin, who holds the sturdily rational view that no matter how shit life can be it's still being alive that counts (yeah, stick that R & J), Heloise remains a rebellious spirit to the end. However, it is the battle of wills between the first breaths of enlightened thinking against the divine oppression of the dark ages that drives Brenton's bawdy examination of faith and religion.
Throughout the years Bernard and Abelard battle it out for the hearts and minds of the people, each convinced the other has no understanding of the concept of faith, as history (and their followers) struggles with the weight of their ideas. However, it is with Abelard's final plea that they shouldn't be fighting because they both believe in the same God where Brenton finally lays his hat. In a world where the colour of one's deity remains as divise as the colour of one's skin, the damage and destruction wrought by both leaves an unpleasant taste. You would have thought the church would be big on happy endings. And yet sympathy still remains for the self-deluded Bernard, almost enigmatic in his unswerving conviction in the fundementals of his faith; whereas Abelard often loses us in bouts of metaphorical goatee scratching.
So thought provoking, yes, but carried off with great vim and vigour in John Dove's production. It's very funny, enjoyably rambunctious, contains, we are helpfully told, strong sexual references, and it looked at one point as if some poor sod in the front row was going to have their eyes taken out by a bullwhip. The minimalist stage filled with colourful costumes in the wonderful environs of the Globe is nicely offset with a period band providing great score. Check the weather report though if you're going for the cheap seats.
In Extremis runs until the 26th May
Image by Stephen Vaughan used with kind permission from The Globe