JOYCE MCMILLAN on ETERNAL LOVE at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 22.3.14.
4 stars ****
THE STORY OF HELOISE and Abelard – the 12th century lovers who defied convention, and began a blazing forbidden affair when she was his pupil and he her tutor – is so renowned, and still so charged with erotic excitement, that most people arriving at the King’s Theatre for this 2006 reworking of the tale by the radical English playwright Howard Brenton must feel that they already know the story.
Co-produced by Shakespeare’s Globe and Engish Touring Theatre, and directed by acclaimed Royal Lyceum associate John Dove, the production has an intensely conventional look and feel, all swirling period costumes, bearded actors and good-looking actresses talking cleverly in fine BBC accents, and comic characters with more downmarket voices. The show even features a final dance, straight out of the now well-worm handbook of 1980’s celebratory theatre; and in that sense, even more than his recent Anne Boleyn, Eternal Love seems an oddly soothing kind of entertainment from the pen of a man once regarded as a dangerous radical among English playwrights.
What Brenton is doing, though, in these history plays, is to try to salvage the story of religious radicalism in England and Europe from a historical tradition that often disguises the electrifying power of the ideas that drove social and political change, or the famliarity of many of the debates around them. So here, he gives us Heloise and Abelard as two driven intellectuals and passionate revolutionaries, fearless in their defiance of sexual convention, both equally and comically incapable of making a home for their out-of-wedlock son, and forever bound together in quest for truth and intellectual freedom, even after their secret marriage, Abelard’s cruel castration, and their respective retreats into the religious houses where they became abbot and abbess.
It’s a vision that inspires a series of delightful performances, not only from Jo Herbert and David Sturzaker as Heloise and Abelard, but from the entire 17-strong company; as well as many spare and attractive stage pictures, on Michael Taylor’s open set, with its twin trees of knowledge. And if it takes a playwright of a certain age to see this mighty tale in context, as part of a continuing divine comedy about the struggle between life and death, desire and hatred, freedom and repression – then that is one reason why we should be glad that Howard Brenton still writes, even if in this case, the picturesque medium sometimes fails to match the radicalism of the message.
King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, final performances today.