The Heresy of Love

Theatre, West End
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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A smart revival for Dominic Dromgoole's final summer season.

In a year that has seen the Church of England finally create its second female bishop - amid much predictable controversy within the church itself – this tale of an inspirational seventeenth-century Mexican nun feels surprisingly modern. We are, perhaps inevitably, most interested in history when it seems to tell our own stories, and the play’s heroine is all the more compelling for waging battles that remain familiar to women both inside and outside the church today. 

In her portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a nun famed both for her beauty and intellect, Helen Edmundson has chosen an individual who would be remarkable by most standards. We meet her at the start of the play, at a point when her own drama has just been well-received at the court, where she has previously worked as a lady-in-waiting. Perhaps inevitably, the sharks are already circling – new archbishop Aguiar y Seijas is a zealot who sees all women as a threat, while jealous nuns at the convent, not least Sister Sebastiana, wish to see her downfall. Against the unforgiving backdrop of the Mexican Inquisition, this combination will eventually prove fatal for Sor Juana.

Edmundson’s play was first performed by the RSC to great acclaim – here at Shakespeare’s Globe, with St Paul’s Cathedral looming across the river, it seems in its element. Jonathan Dove’s production is dominated by an elegant metal frame that evokes the grille used to separate Sor Juana and her fellow nuns from the outside world – at the same time it provides a convenient repository for Sor Juana’s books. Naomi Frederick plays the lead role with wonderful poise and precision. Her air of studious detachment makes it all the more powerful when chemistry flares between herself and Anthony Howells’s passionately intellectual, yet ultimately Machiavellian Bishop Santa Cruz.

Perhaps surprisingly this is an evening full of laughs, whose power comes from the ambiguity Edmundson perceives in her characters. Gwyneth Keyworth’s enjoyably man-mad novice, Angelica – also Sor Juana’s niece – highlights the heroine’s more stony side. Patrick Driver’s grimly dutiful Father Antonio manages to show some humanity even as he executes the authority of the Catholic Church. In a world where the struggle between orthodoxy and liberalism is becoming ever more defining, this is an astute and witty meditation on the subject. A triumph for Dominic Dromgoole’s final summer season.

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