Inspired by the real life story of Hieronymite nun Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz, Helen Edmundson’s play The Heresy of Love exudes as much wit as it does tragedy. After first being performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2012, it is unsurprising that it has been revived so rapidly. Set in a convent in seventeenth century Mexico, the emotional realness of characters and poignantly relevant themes explored in the text nod to its recent creation. In this new production, John Dove ensures that there is plenty of humour to go alongside the bold and intense moments of the text.
Lead protagonist Sister Juana is of the belief that, “faith should not enslave our minds but open them. Faith is an endless universe of light”. Unfortunately for her, faith and creativity are seen as mutually exclusive in the society she lives in. Having dedicated her life to God, her talents for writing and thirst for knowledge are seen as a curse rather than a blessing in the eyes of those around her. She starts the play impassioned, courageous and feisty, but we watch as she unwillingly causes conflict between religious and patriarchal leaders, has her sexuality used against her by envious sisters, and is ultimately betrayed by those on whom she thought she could rely. It is a tale of morality, trust and love in a society defenceless against corruption, disloyalty and power-thirsty individuals. More than anything, however, it is a tale of women. Women who are educated, women who have a voice, women who refuse to be oppressed by society and women who are able to debate religion from within the confines of a convent.
Costume, set and props excellently recreate seventeenth century Mexico, with the atmosphere enhanced by the interjection of singing and music throughout. At times the natural lighting and openness of the Globe work against the building tension of the piece, but the thrust staging lends itself to dramatic conflicts between characters. Although the set is simple, the shelves of books and use of metal gateways create a more intimate and claustrophobic atmosphere on stage – vital for the piece. From Anthony Howell’s portrayal of the Machiavellian Bishop Santa Cruz to the vivacious and compassionate Juanita (Sophia Nomvete), the talented cast of actors are as strong individually as they are a company.
Thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish, this wonderful piece of theatre is truly worth seeing.
The Heresy of Love is playing at Shakespeare’s Globe until 5 September. For more information and tickets, see the Shakespeare’s Globe website. Photo: Shakespeare’s Globe.