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The Heresy of Love, Shakespeare's Globe | reviews, news & interviews

The Heresy of Love, Shakespeare's Globe

The Heresy of Love, Shakespeare's Globe

Conflict of restrictive dogma and individuality powerful in story of 17th-century Mexico

Secular and sacred: servant Juanita (Sophia Nomvete, left) with her mistress Sister Juana (Naomi Frederick)Bill Knight for theartsdesk

Helen Edmundson’s The Heresy of Love may be set in 17th century Mexico and follow the conflict between strict religion and personal development, but its theme of a woman denied her voice by a surrounding male hierarchy retains real contemporary relevance.

Helen Edmundson’s The Heresy of Love may be set in 17th century Mexico and follow the conflict between strict religion and personal development, but its theme of a woman denied her voice by a surrounding male hierarchy retains real contemporary relevance. First staged at the RSC three years ago, the dramatic strengths of the work shine through in this new Globe production, which reminds us most of all of Edmundson’s confident craft and limberness of language.

Her subject is the life of Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz (Naomi Frederick, excellent), one of the first major writers of the Spanish-speaking world (known in her lifetime as the “Tenth Muse”), who was also a thinker whose wide-ranging knowledge and “voracious curiosity” made her the equal of any of her male contemporaries. The mixed race child of a Spanish soldier, she essentially educated herself, and after moving to Mexico City became a lady-in-waiting at the Viceroy’s court, where her intelligence was quickly acclaimed. The Hieronymite convent that she went on to join allowed her considerable liberty to combine her religious calling with her secular, literary gifts – a rare sanctuary for the time, we might think, that gave her a degree of independence within an otherwise protective structure.

Heresy is anything but a dry, academic text, and compresses the real-life events of the last part of Juana’s life into a single, short dramatic unit. It opens with the arrival of a new archbishop in New Spain (as Mexico was then known), whose strictness of doctrine and closeness to the Inquisition sets him in immediate opposition to the more worldly court, and especially to the figure of Juana, whose status up until then had been, as her confessor Father Antonio (Patrick Driver) describes it, that of a “particular case”. We see much less of the Archbishop himself (Phil Whitchurch, defining his gestures by gesticulating with a lemon) than of the scheming Bishop Santa Cruz (Anthony Howell) whose initial loyalty to the idea of independence, as well as a growing fascination with Juana herself, means nothing in the power game he initiates to reinforce his own position (Edmundson gives him Iago-like soliloquies to convey the baseness of his scheming).

The main body of the action takes place in Juana’s convent, where at the start there’s a pride in her gifts and connections, as an early visit of congratulation from the Viceroy and his retinue illustrates (there was a special sympathy in real life between Juana and the Vicereine, played by Ellie Piercy here). On a more domestic level, Juana is clearly close to her vivaciously secular maid Juanita (Sophia Nomvete, with Naomi Frederick as Juana, main picture), as well as to her niece Angelica who’s considering whether to take her own vows, a lovely performance from Gwyneth Keyworth that catches a naive freshness of youth that will be cruelly abused in the course of the play. The independent interaction between those two, for whom convent life is far from the be-all and end-all, is nicely balanced, giving a sense of everyday life rippling along regardless of any dogmatic preoccupations (Keyworth with Nomvete, pictured above right).

As the climate changes, the previous liberal atmosphere in which Juana was free to receive visitors vanishes, replaced by chicanery; there’s even the appearance of a degree of hysteria which the manipulative Santa Cruz is ready to harness (Anthony Howell with Rhiannon Oliver’s Sister Sebastiana, caught in a vision, pictured left).

But it’s Frederick as Juana who captivates, finding the full breadth of this complex character, moving as she does from restraint to urgent impulse and self-assertion (“I did not renounce my mind,” she insists of her decision to enter the convent), sincerity to intriguing wit. There’s an almost gangly innocence in the performance on occasions, and indeed Juana is easily deceived, but it underlines the fire of her inspiration (“God sets us free that we might live”) and determination to understand the human heart.

This is very limber writing, combining beautifully the cadences of the formal with the humour of the colloquial; there’s a lot of laughter in John Dove’s production, too, that draws out the overlapping comedy and tragedy characteristic of the drama of the Spanish Golden Age, with a finale that morphs easily from something very close to the latter into a flamenco-inspired dance. If at times some back-stage ensembles seem on the static side, that's compensated for by excursions forward onto the thrust to capture more dynamically the confrontations between characters. Michael Taylor’s design is spare, and the three musicians playing William Lyons’s score provide restrained atmosphere. Fittingly for a play about a writer who was finally denied her voice, the lasting achievement of The Heresy of Love is surely Edmundson’s own language – its flexing, uncomplicated strength a joy to experience.

This is very limber writing, combining beautifully the cadences of the formal with the humour of the colloquial

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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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