Eternal Love written by Howard Brenton and directed by John Dove previously played at the Globe Theatre under its original title "In Extremis" and is an adaption of the love story of Abelard and Heloise of France. The play is written in modern language, but firmly set and played as a period play would have been.
The play is set in medieval France in the first part of the 1100s. This play is historically set just after the first Crusade and re-taking of Jerusalem in 1099. For the first time, Christian scholars are from Arabic translations of ancient Greek works getting access to pre-Christian philosophy from the ancient world thinkers such as Aristotle, and some of them are trying to re-interpret Christian writings and doctrine through these new approaches to philosophy and reasoning. Abelard is one such scholar and his teachings and thoughts have already taken him in direct conflict with the Church over his views. Abelard decides to form his own school of teaching and also at this time meets Heloise, the scholastically brilliant daughter of the local Canon. Abelard invites Heloise to join his school (a very unusual offer to a woman in these times) and she accepts. Almost immediately he begins an affair with Heloise. Of course her family find out about this, and scandal ensues. Worse still, Heloise takes a very unusual feminist stance for the times and refuses Abelard's offer of marriage and bears him a child out of wedlock. As you would expect though along the way, family honour demands that Abelard pays a price for his affair with his young lover.
A few other things happen along the way in this story, but telling you this would spoil the story a little and you should go and see this play yourself to find out what happens before our two lovers take Holy Orders and become a Monk and a Nun. The second half of the play takes us forward 20 years where Abelard is still fighting for his ideals and is eventually excommunicated from the Church for them. Throughout all this time though, the love between Abelard and Heloise survives and "Eternal Love" lives on for them and past their deaths.
This is a love story set amidst the closed minds of the Church at this period and the refusal of the Church to accept any questioning whatsoever of the "Word of God" or "Word of Christ" There is also political power and status at stake here and an agitator such as Abelard is not going to be allowed to interfere in that area. Almost 1,000 years on and many of the issues raised here are still being debated and refuted by many people.
David Sturzaker (Abelard) and Jo Herbert (Heloise) are excellent in their portrayal of these characters and are supported by a very capable cast of actors (I should I suppose call them players). Everyone here knows their craft and all understand that the principal focus of this play has to be the two principal characters.
This play covers the period from Abelard meeting Heloise to his death and a lot happens in that time. While the whole dynamics of this play are driven by contemporary church politics and morality, i would have liked to have seen a lot more time devoted to the love story of Abelard and Heloise. This I have to admit though is because my own knowledge of medieval French church politics or religious argument is not very good, but these are in the end the driving forces that dictate the lives of the lovers.
Without doubt, one thing that adds to the "authenticity" of this play is the music. The music for this play was written by William Lyons who is an expert on the music of this period. To make everything "sound right", only musical instruments from this period have been used.
The story of Abelard and Heloise is based on true historical events. The letters between the two lovers and their story are well known in France, where they are buried side by side and the graves are still visited to this day.
Amongst other adaptions of this famous love story (including a film), there is also an unfinished play by Shakespeare called 'Abelard and Elois, a Tragedie'. This is one of those classic stories that can be re-told over and over in myriad combinations. It would be nice to see this story set as a contemporary piece of work and focusing completely on the love story. As we know that the lovers had a child, perhaps that child's decendants could be the focus of a new updated story....any writers out there interested in running with this idea?
Review by Tom King