ETERNAL LOVE – The Story of Abelard and Heloise
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 25th February, 2014
English Touring Theatre and the Globe are touring this excellent Howard Brenton play in a show that has all the production values you expect. The costumes alone (over a hundred of them) are impressive, denoting character, place and period in the absence of detailed scenery and props. The set evokes the Globe theatre itself with its musicians’ gallery, two entrances and a concealed area, adding to the historicity of the piece.
The plot tells of real-life star-crossed lovers Abelard and Heloise although there is just as much emphasis on religious and philosophical debate, both of which give the couple a bit of bother. David Sturzaker is a likeable Abelard, fired up by his Aristotelian teachings as much as he is by his lust for Heloise (Jo Herbert), who, remarkably for the era, is an inquisitive, literate and educated girl. As we side with the couple, we side against the religious fanatics, epitomised by bonkers Bernard, a vomiting, foot-licking monk – a gripping performance by Sam Crane. Things fall apart for the lovers and they end up taking holy orders and spending most of their lives apart.
Sturzaker, Herbert and Crane are supported by a hard-working ensemble. Edward Peel impresses as Heloise’s uncle Fulbert and the cast play the rich humour of the script to perfection, balancing it against the cruelty and horror of some of the scenes. John Cummins is very funny as Alberic and Julius D’Souza suitably imperious as a Louis VI who reminded me of Henry VIII.
The production is a delight from curtain to curtain. Hard-working musicians (William Lyons, Rebecca Austen-Brown, and Arngeir Hauksson) on period instruments provide an evocative soundtrack, although Brenton’s dialogue is very much of today, without resorting to slang and buzzwords that will date very quickly. Director John Dove imbues his production with the feel of a Kneehigh production – which is no bad thing at all.
The play’s a discussion of the use of religion as an instrument of power. Still relevant today is the ongoing battle between reason and fanaticism, and the role of bigotry and oppression in legislation. Beware giving power to fanatics, the play says. When I see laws being passed around the world in places like Uganda and even Kansas and Arizona, it feels like a rebirth of the medieval era – an anti-Renaissance.
An absolute gem of a show, Eternal Love isn’t heavy-handed with its ideas; amusing and emotive, it’s a very satisfying night at the theatre.