The Heresy of Love

Sat 7th February – Fri 6th March 2015

reviews

Aine Fairbrother-Browne

at 01:06 on 7th Mar 2015

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Performed beneath a halo of gold suspended from the theatre ceiling, this is a tale of intelligence and repression. The play tells the story of a young nun, blessed with the power of words. However, despite her goodness of heart, the religious world in which she is immersed conspires against her love for learning and writing. She struggles and fights, but is eventually silenced, both intellectually and physically, the play ending in her tragic death.

The opening scene greets the audience’s ears with a chilling chorus of baroque choral music (performed impressively by the actors themselves), before Father Antonio (Ryan McKen) sweeps onto the stage elegantly, yet decadently, costumed. A solemn tone sets the stage in the first act, with the introduction of the menacing Archbishop who will eventually bring about the downfall of the heroine, Sister Juana. Archbishop Aguiar (Joel Macey) is a complex, yet puritanical character, portrayed with vigour and precision by Macey who gives a particularly exquisite performance. Having said this, each and every member of the cast conveyed their characters with a tangible passion, and the cast presented themselves as a harmonious unit. I hardly believed this was their opening night.

The aesthetic of the play draws the audience yet further into the story. The staging consisting of two key elements: the main hall, segregated from the nuns by a golden fence, and Sister Juana’s chambers. The gates are a major symbol in the play of the marginalisation of women. Whereas, the sister’s chambers represent her creativity and intellectual curiosity – the shelves are filled with her many books, which are later burned, leading to her downfall. Amongst the darkness, however, there are frequent moments of joviality, as the servants chatter and gossip behind the scenes of the unravelling drama. Their jokes and excellent comic timing provide relief from the serious tone of the play, yet cleverly intertwine with the narrative, providing an additional sub-plot (that of Juana’s foolish young niece).

“In God’s name be silent” are the words spat from the Archbishop’s trembling lips as he threatens Juana’s death - a quote that both sums up the message of the play, and heralds the end for Juana. The breathtaking scene ending in these words sees a religious and intellectual battle of words between herself and the unforgiving Archbishop - personally, a highlight of the play. Juana’s heartbreaking undoing sees bouts of self-harm and a renouncement of her beliefs, as well as the corruption of her niece. Dim lighting and thunderstorm effects make Juana’s inner battle between God and free-thought all the more visible and poignant. Her tunic shed and her flesh bare, Juana dies nursing her fellow nuns after the plague takes hold of the convent.

The morning of her death is heralded with warm lighting and bird chorus – the heroine is now dead, and the battle is lost. Some kind of order is restored, and the play ends as it begun – a chorus of spine-tingling choral music soaring above the audience’s heads.

There is too much complexity to speak of in this short review, and I have only been able to give a brief description, but I highly recommend it!

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Ella Wilks-Harper

at 09:41 on 7th Mar 2015

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If you enjoy tragedy at its fullest, I urge everyone to see this triumph of a play. Staged beneath the Old Vic Theatre, the audience are led into an intimate space and enclosed within the world of religious inspection and censorship. Based on the true story of Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz, the play follows her breakdown as her love for God and writing is forced into conflict by new powers within the Church. Director Jenny Stephens brings this tragic tale back to life to remind audiences of the pressing issues of censorship and particularly the difficulties of being a woman in a patriarchal system.

The tragedy of Juana’s breakdown is brought by the arrival of the Archbishop (Joel Macey) whose consistency of character as the figure of ruthless, puritanical authority stole the show. This is achieved through his domination of the stage as his delicately paced lines and terrifying spouts of anger, which I warn will make you jump, eradicates all opposition as he condemns the very nature of plays. Although his physical presence on stage is brief in Act 1, his presence is undoubtedly omnipresent through the gossip within the convent, which reflects on the ingenuity of the script.

It is this gossip that the Archbishop hatched from an egg that brings the play its much needed comedy. The comedy is brilliantly delivered most notably through the love affair between Angelica (Martha Seignior) and Don Hernando (Harry Egan). This sub-plot is initially hilarious as Angelica is forced to disguise herself as Juana by wearing a habit in order to speak to Don Hernando within the convent. The moments with which the fourth wall are broken by Harry Egan as he looks onto the audience for our approval while he kisses the young Angelica epitomise the fragility of innocence with which the play exposes.

Through the use of costume, designed by Lizzy Leech, the audience are brought into the realm of the seventieth century. It is through the pompously decorated Don Hernando with which these comedic moments are achieved. However the gradual decline in colour and eloquence in costume amongst the royals and nuns reflects on the tyrannical reign of the Archbishop, as his grows. Moreover the audience soon learn that even the comedic aspects of the play will be brought to calamity, as all are brought under scrutiny.

This scrutiny is climactically brought to the forefront in Act 2 as the technical aspects of the play flourish. The halo structure that hovers over the stage is brought to its full potential as darkened lights shine through and sounds of ferocious weather circulate the stage, to symbolise God’s wrath as flood and plague sweep the city. The use of song in the form of the nun’s hymns in an attempt to alleviate this devastation is poignant in emphasising their futility against the Archbishop.

This play is a true tragedy in all its forms. It brings together various sub-plots and leaves the audience outraged that Sister Juana’s tale is not better known. A must see.

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