Review: The Heresy of Love by Helen Edmunson

The Heresy of Love pic

The Heresy of Love

The round O of Shakespeare’s Globe may appear to be a static structure, but in fact this space is forever changing its contours, and reconstituting itself from the inside out. In the last two years, approximately, with the construction of the Sam Wanamaker indoor playhouse now complete, the Globe has undergone an identifiable  shift from summer attraction to an all year-round producing theatre. Add to this the renovations of the downstairs foyer, which now opens out onto Bankside and New Globe Walk, there is more of a blend of the old and new than before. Although nostalgic in its architecture, the Globe always feels vivaciously modern. This undeniable newness is, surely, the key to its success. And given that the programme deals predominantly in works authored by a 400-year old male writer, it’s exciting to see that Dominic Dromgoole’s last season as Artistic Director, entitled ‘Justice and Mercy’, includes two plays by contemporary women playwrights. First off is The Heresy of Love, which also features as part of ‘Mexico in the UK 2015’ cultural exchange programme. Towards the end of the summer season the Globe will also premiere Jessica Swale’s new play Nell Gwynn, exploring the life of one of the first known British actresses at Charles II’s court. Adding to the growing presence of female voices in the Globe’s 2015 programme, transmitted through stories of inspirational women from history, next year Dromgoole will be succeeded by Emma Rice (currently co-director of Kneehigh) as the Globe’s first female Artistic Director,

This production of The Heresy of Love is a revival of Edmunson’s acclaimed play, originally commissioned by the RSC in 2012, and relates the fascinating story of its main character, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz – a scholarly nun whose intellect and faith appear to be incompatible in 17th century Mexico. Edmunson took inspiration from the RSC’s previous 2004 staging of House of Desires, penned in 1683 by Sor Juana herself, and The Heresy of Love examines a point in her life when her career as a writer of secular plays and poems becomes a controversial issue for the patriarchal authorities, particularly the newly arrived Archbishop, who see this activity as inappropriate. Despite the admiration – and commissions – that she receives from the court, and support from the conflicted Bishop Santa Cruz (Anthony Howell), they denounce her creative production as heresy and set about to silence Sor Juana. The threat of the heretical propels us both forward and backwards, to the larger dilemma of women and their position in the Church. In Stabat Mater, a meditation on motherhood and the cult of the Virgin Mary, the theorist Julia Kristeva finds love and heresy to be intimately entangled in her historical representation: ‘Nothing could be more “normal” than that a maternal image should establish itself on the site of that tempered anguish known as love. No one is spared. Except perhaps the saint or the mystic, or the writer who, by force of language, can still manage nothing more than […] to identify with love as it really is: a fire of tongues, an escape from representation.’ Here, then, is a surprisingly fervent point of departure for considering both Sor Juana’s work, and Edmunson following on from her.

There is a huge deal to commend about both the play and this current production.The strong ensemble cast, made up of seven female and five male parts, is led by an assured Naomi Frederick as Sor Juana, and highlighted with fine comic turns (and plenty of bawdy humour) from Sophia Nomvete as Juanita and Gwyneth Keyworth as Angelica. Employing some of the characteristics inherited from theatre of the Spanish Golden Age, the play creates an intriguing story of Sor Juana’s defiance against her prescribed role as a woman of God. The outdoor stage lends itself as the perfect setting for Edmunson’s imagination to come in to vivid detail, and is dressed simply with Michael Taylor’s stage design of a large iron bar frame (that at times serves to divide the persons of the court from the convent) and Sor Juana’s stacks of books, which when removed leave it looking suddenly bare. However, while the story and its aesthetics belong to the Renaissance, the subject matter feels achingly relevant. There is potentially no better stage for creating a sense of worship and reverence than the Globe, and in The Heresy of Love, we are given the opportunity to celebrate the achievements of two exceptional literary figures, one from the 17th century and the other now.

The Heresy of Love  plays at the Globe till 5 September 2015.

UK IN MEXICO 2015: More information on this celebration of culture between these two nations, and other calendared UKMX events, is available on the website

Review (c) Joanna Lally, 2015.

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About 17Percent

A campaign to get more plays by women playwrights onto UK stages.
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