The Grand, no doubt through a lot of hard work, have secured a partnership with the English Touring Theatre to do big, ambitious drama. The first production of that collaboration is currently showing; the revival of Howard Brenton’s Eternal Love, first produced at The Globe, London, in 2006. Etermal Love is based on the medieval French love story of the scholars Abelard (played by David Sturzaker) and Heloise (Jo Herbert) and set against the background of the machinations of the church and philosophy in the 11th and 12th centuries. It is produced in a way that mixes humour, song, dance, love and tragedy with considerable amounts of philosophy. Melding such different materials and themes must be fiendishly difficult and the result does not sit easily in any particular dramatic genre. It is worth seeing and supporting for many reasons but does have several areas that concern me as a piece of drama.
The opening of the play introduced Abelard as a thorn in the side of his orthodox teachers, with one of the several slabs of philosophy the play contains, and illustrates how he confounds his opponents. Whether it is good or necessary to show Abelard’s disputional nature in this way I am not sure, especially early on in a piece, where it could easily seem to the audience a forewarning of a play that will be didactic and somewhat cold, which it tries not to be.
This is followed by a scene which introduces the love story / infatuation which was to become the tabloid-style shock horror of French society of the day; the firebrand preacher and philosopher taking up with his free spirited student Heloise. Unmarried, and feverishly in love, the pair made love at every available opportunity. To those unfamiliar with the events it could seem that this crucial relationship is introduced in rather a glib fashion though the attraction and stresses and strains the lovers go through is deepened as the play continues to some extent when we see a little more of their backgrounds, particlarly that of Heloise. However, the love story could have been more central, acting as a motif for some of the philosophical points Abelard’s ideas relied upon. Instead, rather heavy weather was made of these ideas, perhaps due to the author’s research getting in the way of a good story?
I felt there was improvement in the second part in terms of dramatic structure and action. It focused on the later life of the pair following brutal reprisals against Abelard and the retreat of the pair, now married, to separate religious institutions. Throughout the play, Bernard of Clairvoux (played by Sam Crane), one of Abelard’s implacable theological opponents, debated with Abelard and attempted to silence the thinker. The alternation between modes of thought, Aristotelian logic versus Orthodox spirituality, which we can still understand today was one of the more refreshing elements of didactic philosophy in the play and both modes were treated with a robust defence, each revealing favourable elements under differing scrutinies.
These debates led to a set piece confrontation late in the play with another show of the author’s research in having the cast reciting all Bernard’s eleven points in which he suggests Abelard is heretical. They did at least enliven the giving of these charges with some humour though once again, “I’ve researched these so I’m going to tell you about them,” seemed to shine through to me concerning Howard Brenton’s intentions.
I wasn’t struck by great emotional feeling by any of the performers for their characters though this was a play that did not take that route so it is not something the actors might be held accountable for. All were more than competent, though it is unfortunate given that the historical facts are centred on one of the most challenging and unusual love stories ever and how that develops over time, that such emotion was unexplored. It might also, in relation to this, have been possible to do the very difficult job of showing how different the past is to today. For example, maybe we just don’t see how radical were the events of the lovers at such a period and that to some extent Heloise as a woman has an outlook we might see as modern but we forget just how shocking her actions were at the time and how strong she must have been to maintain her beliefs to the extent she could.
There are several good points over all. Some of the subsidiary actions, such as scene changes, were handled very well as the cast came and went from the stage. The music, based on medieval original pieces was unobtrusive and well done from a seeming minstrel’s gallery on the set. The end of the play was an energetic dance, also based on original pieces of work of the time. The play is accompanied by an excellent booklet giving background that includes a nuanced historical summary and further background to the musical work.
The Grand should be applauded and supported for bringing a major piece of drama, that did engage with the bulk of the audience by the end, to Blackpool. There were some real laugh out loud moments, the costumes were remarkably beautiful and there is food for thought by the spadeful. Eternal Love continues Friday and Saturday this week.
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