Mexican Nun Triumphs At The Globe

The Heresy of Love, Globe Theatre ★★★★☆

Tom Bolton
By Tom Bolton Last edited 37 months ago
Mexican Nun Triumphs At The Globe The Heresy of Love, Globe Theatre 4
Naomi Frederick as Soar Juan and Anthony Howell as Bishop Santa Cruz.

On a grey July evening the Globe has taken a summer holiday to 17th century Mexico — the colony known as New Spain. Packed to the gills with princes, bishops, nuns, comic servants, The Heresy of Love hones in on familiar territory to fans of Spanish Golden Age drama, but is in fact only three years old. Helen Edmundson’s play premiered in Stratford in 2012 and, despite a short run, was claimed by some as an instant classic. Its rapid revival at the Globe gives London audiences an overdue chance to find out for themselves.

Edmundson employs the settings and intrigues of 17th century Spanish playwrights to tell the story of the most unlikely of their number, Juana Inés de la Cruz, poet, playwright — author of The House of Desires — and sister in a Hieronymite convent in Mexico City. Expectations are turned on their head, as the intellectually assured Sister Juana challenges the new, regressive Archbishop, fresh from Spain and fired with the Inquisition, who refuses even to look at a woman. She asserts her equal right to think, debate, and write against mounting threats and conspiracies. As her confidantes and supporters, the vulnerable Spanish Vicereine, troubled confessor Father Antonio and the Iago-like Bishop Santa Cruz, waver before the threat of the Inquisition, can her freedom remain unchallenged?

The Heresy of Love is written in sharp prose — poetic, funny, and convincing — and presents characters who wrestle with era-defining debates that directly threaten their lives. Edmundson’s achievement is to present such discussions with a remarkably light touch. The drama tackles the rights of women in the church and beyond, fundamental theological questions about God and free will, New America versus Old Europe, sexual freedom, and the exercise of power and responsibility. All these themes, apparently as relevant now as 350 years ago, are contained within a story of plots, secret convent assignations, threats, double-crossing and death.

Jonathan Dove’s production swirls around a set of decorative yet impassable cast iron grilles, designed by Michael Taylor. A strong cast takes full advantage of a crowd of well-written parts. Naomi Frederick is a moral pillar as Sister Juana; Anthony Howell, as the Bishop, reveals his secret intent to the audience in near-Shakespearian soliloquies; Phil Whitchurch is implacable but human as Archbishop Aguiar y Sejas. Juana’s servant, Juanita, is a very funny Sophia Nomvete, while Gwyneth Keyworth is a charming liability as her teenage niece.

The Heresy of Love is high quality drama, well-chosen by the Globe and guaranteed to entertain, but a piece of urgent debate presented without apologies. This is a play that seems sure to find a permanent place in the repertoire.

The Heresy of Love by Helen Edmundson runs at Shakespeare’s Globe until 5 September for seven performances only. Production image by Marc Brenner. Londonist saw the production on a complimentary ticket.

If foreign correspondent Jim Maceda’s account of meeting Imelda Marcos, Mrs Duvalier and Mirjana Milosevic is anything to go by, dictators’ spouses are even more chillingly psychopathic than the despots themselves. In Abi Morgan's Splendour, the dictator is absent, as a single scene between four women (one of them his wife) is played and replayed in the presidential nest of an unspecified country as civil war erupts.

Micheleine (Sinéad Cusack) hosts her “best friend of thirty… five… years” Genevieve (Michelle Fairley) and coolly sardonic foreign photojournalist Kathryn (Genevieve O’Reilly), who has come to photograph the presidential couple, accompanied by her drolly kleptomaniac interpreter Gilma (Zawe Ashton).

As the chilli-flavoured vodka flows, composures fray. Episodically, the opening staging reconfigures, Micheleine’s vase is smashed and the scene begins anew. It’s a risky structure which portends Groundhog Day levels of déjà vu, but Jack Murphy’s movement direction is seamless and, with every revival, the situation becomes more intensely cross-hatched with newly-perceived social dynamics and more deeply excruciating.

Thirty-five years is, we find out, “a long time to despise your best friend,” but Fairley is dextrous in increasing Genevieve’s outspokenness. Her previous Donmar credits include Huis Clos (No Exit), Sartre’s interminable three-hander set in hell-proper, so she’s no stranger to sustaining intrigue in an inferno.

There are no weak links in this cast, who zero in on their characters’ contrasting qualities, making for loaded interaction and a transfixingly acrid cocktail of personalities. Cusack slithers between exchanges like an immaculately coiffured velociraptor who has devoured Debrett’s Guide to Social Etiquette. Fatly exuding well-being, she fires anecdotes about her grandson into conversational lulls with laser-like precision. Thus she’s a perfect foil for Ashton, who progressively foregrounds Gilma’s ravenousness, sensitively revealing her fragility.

Designer Peter McKintosh encircles her vault-like habitat with shards of broken glass. The message is clear: the pervasive desolation outside can only be kept at bay for so long. For the others, Micheleine’s haven is totally hellish, something which Lee Curran reflects competently by marking temporal transitions with his red-glowing chandelier, although he could afford to up the ante with his lighting design to convey something more of the encroaching outside.

Despite its dated references to videos, there is a brilliance to Morgan’s script which feels timeless. One issue is that by abstaining from situating the play, she suggests that her characters are archetypes — an idea which in the case of this production does not do justice to each actor’s rendering of a very finely-wrought individual.

Splendour is on at Donmar Warehouse 30 July-26 September 2015. Tickets £10*-£37.50. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary ticket.

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Last Updated 07 August 2015