Love that lasts a thousand years

Eternal Love

Malvern Theatres

*****

ABELARD and Heloise are legendary lovers from 12th Century France whose names may be familiar to many and whose story strikes a fascinating chord with a modern audience.

The pair shared a love of learning and both had exceptional intellects, so when the spark of attraction caught Abelard’s soul, he offered to become a personal tutor to Heloise who had been raised by her uncle Canon Fulbert.

Their passion led to an intense sexual relationship and later to a pregnancy. It caused a massive scandal and deep shock in the deeply religious culture that surrounded them. Fulbert is so incensed that he wants to kill Abelard; Abelard tries to appease him by offering to marry Heloise, albeit secretly.

Heloise, though, does not want to marry and become a wife, she prefers the passion and excitement of being a mistress, she wants love not wedlock! She also fears that a marriage will destroy Peter Abelard’s career prospects – with his outstanding intellect and abilities, he is destined to become a cardinal and possibly even a future Pope. Nonetheless Abelard persuades Heloise to enter into a secret marriage and he tries unsuccessfully to convince her uncle of the benefits of secrecy.

The marriage in no ways brings their troubles to an end; they have enemies who want to expose and humiliate them, so Abelard ends up hiding Heloise in a convent, while he himself is attacked by a bunch of thugs, cousins of Bishop Fulbert, and is violently castrated.

Their subsequent separation led to correspondence that has been a part of their ‘heritage’ to future generations. The tragic story of these ill-fated lovers is the subject of Howard Brenton’s play ‘Eternal Love’ running for a week at the Malvern Festival Theatre.

PERIOD INSTRUMENTS

Michael Taylor’s design provides a bright backdrop that is brilliantly flexible for a play with multiple short scenes that were smoothly linked with the highly effective music played by William Lyons and his fellow musicians with a number of period instruments.

This visual and musical background was complemented by some beautiful costumes that, especially in the court scenes, were visually stunning.

The play provides the audience with a considerable amount of philosophy, theology and debate. This potentially weighty material is wonderfully counterbalanced by two strong elements: the humour and the human elements of the story.

The humour is illustrated by the way in which very quickly after the most gruesome moment in the play when Peter Abelard is castrated, humour, albeit slightly black humour, is made of this tragedy by the mad second monk and Lotholf and Alberic. The human element pervades the play too: the young nuns spying on Abelard and Heloise in the chapel with their very natural curiosity are typical of countless human and humorous elements that counterbalance any potential heaviness provided by the philosophical debate and conflicts.

Peter Abelard and Heloise were brilliantly portrayed by David Sturzaker and Jo Herbert, and likewise Sam Crane’s Bernard de Clairvaux maintained a powerful mystical presence. These strong performances were strongly complemented by Julius D’Silva as King Louis VI and Edward Peel as Bishop Fulbert, Heloise’s uncle. There is a large cast that mostly operate as an ensemble throughout the performance.

The other cast members provided a strong set of supporting characters and the delivery of the text was excellent: the words were clearly spoken, the balance of voices a delight to the ear and the pace of the show very well managed. The exploration of the passionate relationship between Abelard and Heloise managed to avoid any excessive sentimentality: this was helped by the roles of Denise, Peter Abelard’s sister and Mother Helene at the Convent of Ste Marie Argenteuil, as well as by the humour lacing the show.

MAJOR CONFLICT

Howard Brenton’s play presents us with a major conflict of culture and philosophies represented mainly by Peter Abelard and Heloise on the one hand as the new freethinkers who emphasise the importance of reason, logic and meaning, and by Bernard on the other hand, who is somewhat caricatured, as the representative of revelation, faith and the traditional acceptance of the authority of Scripture and the Church.

This conflict comes to a head at the Council of Sens at which it might seem as though Bernard de Clairvaux is the winner. However as the play draws to a close and Abelard has been excommunicated from the church and his writings banned and burnt, and as it seems as though Abelard has lost completely, Heloise reveals the survival of his ‘autobiography’, the ‘History of My Sorrows’, along with the letters they exchanged over the years; by producing a 21st Century Penguin edition of the same, she effectively delivers the verdict of history that Peter Abelard’s rationalism and freethinking has become after many generations the ultimate winner.

The play opens with the cast moving out into the auditorium to engage with the audience and greet them with warmth and friendliness; the play then concludes with a song and dance that is performed by the whole cast as an ensemble which seems to communicate that actually the human, the joyful, the communal acceptance and toleration of everyone in our humanness is to be celebrated as a victory over the dry and brutal contentiousness of philosophical and theological debate.

The play ends with an upbeat sense that we have transcended the dry and ugly contentiousness that resulted in the destruction of Peter Abelard and Heloise’s passionate love affair. This is a wonderful, thought-provoking and lively play that is to be highly recommended.

Tim Crow

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