Chris Eldon Lee reviews Eternal Love, which is at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre until Saturday 1st March 2014.
Howard Brenton is clearly determined to have fun with his wacky take on the true story of the lustful and lawless liaison between the medieval theology scholar Peter Abelard and his virginal young student Heloise.
It was a time of philosophical upheaval in 12th century France as the questioning young radicals rose against the fundamentalists by running argumentative circles round them with heated debates about how big a perfect table might be in Heaven, and how many angels can dance upon the head of a pin.
Abelard may have become a devote monk and founded of the University of Paris but Brenton paints him as a randy dog who takes what he wants anywhere he get it – and to hell with the consequences. Heloise (supposedly sweet 17) is no better, suggesting their lovemaking will be perfectly safe under the kitchen window because the gardener is deaf. But they go far too far with their unholy conceptions upon the alter and the crux of the play is how they are stopped.
David Sturkazer and Jo Herbert (a couple in real life) are suitably outrageous as the shameless lovers. He is racy and rebellious and she brings a surprising power to the play in her determination to refuse marriage in order to promote him to Pope. Brenton’s emotionally skewed writing is not easy, but they are the masters of it.
Their downfall is orchestrated by Bernard of Clairvaux; a mad, fasting monk with a hygiene problem and a mobile tongue. Not knowing the story, Sam Crane’s portrayal came as a disturbing surprise; “a ridiculous little man” so not in this world that he’s hard to define or defeat. Crane plays him on the very edge of lunacy and it’s a magnetic performance.
Brenton has a good story to tell, but having built his cathedral of words he just can’t resist lobbing bricks through his own stained glass windows. The jokes arrive from nowhere and smash through convention. A gaggle of gracious nuns discuss fornication, and somehow a 20th century paperback arrives as evidence of Abelard’s lasting fame. And the students in the audience were helpless as Tom Kanji stole an entire scene (to the very point of destroying it) simply by repeating the final words of other people’s sentences. It’s hugely risky stagecraft, but it works.
This is powerful theatre with eternal points to make, presented in the style of the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, in which it was given birth seven years ago.
The play’s title has been re-thought to make it more appealing in the provinces and English Touring Theatre’s bravado brings it to audiences who would otherwise be denied it’s audacity.
This story of France’s favourite lovers is not for the faint hearted or deeply devout, but those not qualified to throw the first stone will doubtless lap it up.
Visit www.grandtheatre.info for bookings & information about Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre