“If you marry me you’ll never be a candidate for the Vatican”
Originally seen at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2006 and 2007 as In Extremis, Howard Brenton’s newly retitled Eternal Love marks the 21st birthday year of English Touring Theatre and the first instalment in a three-year-long project to tour quality drama across the country. On a personal note, it also saw my first ever visit to Cambridge (too brief for my liking, I look forward to a return) and the Cambridge Arts Theatre (very friendly, I like the fact I found the bar before I found the box office!).
The retitling offers a further clue to its subject matter in a subtitle The Story of Abelard and Heloise but in some ways, this feels a little bit of a misnomer. For though the enduring love story between the medieval theologian Peter Abelard and his fearsomely intelligent student Heloise is a central part of the play, Brenton also focuses on the key philosophical debate of the time, as intense rival Bernard of Clairvaux declares his determination to defeat this heretical foe and maintain the doctrine of absolute faith.
And it is this fervour that becomes the most striking element of John Dove’s production. There’s definite chemistry between David Sturzaker’s Abelard and Jo Herbert’s Heloise (how could there not be…) but the real fire in their eyes burns when they are intellectually stimulated as well. Abelard’s glee at wrong-footing his teachers in logical argument, Heloise’s fierce assertions of independence from her guardian uncle and in turn, the same from Sam Crane’s marvellous mystic Bernard, almost shaking with righteous zeal and foot-licking dedication. All three actors utterly convince that their beliefs are nothing less than cast-iron.
Brenton never shies away from showing us the damage that such certainties cause – on all sides – finding a remarkable sense of balance in its arguments and ensuring that there’s no easy division of hero/villain. The only true victim turns out to be the unseen child of this union, packed off to be raised by Abelard’s sister, and not just because he was named Astrolabe. Comic relief is provided by the wryly-played double act of John Cummins and William Mannering and there’s deeply felt work from Rhiannon Oliver too.
Michael Taylor’s design recreates the simple staging ethos of the Globe through which Dove weaves a sinuous flow of pace; William Lyons’ band of three musicians create a gorgeous soundscape from high up back, the three main songs of the evening proving a highlight; and Hilary Lewis’ costume work is just excellent, the court scenes particularly sumptuous. Eternal Love is nothing so straightforward as a love story, it asks you to consider how far we could or should go in pushing the extremes of belief, no matter the consequences either politically or personally.