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Audience engaged by 'abstract controversy'

By LeeTrewhela  |  Posted: February 13, 2014

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Eternal Love

Hall for Cornwall

Review by Eric Dare

IN A week when card shops everywhere are pink with Valentines, a play entitled Eternal Love would seem a good choice for the HFC.

But English Touring Theatre’s playwright Howard Brenton is (thankfully) not a Barbara Cartland.

This true story about forbidden love is fundamentally about philosophy and theology. While it had profound importance when it occurred in medieval times, it also has relevance in the 21st century.

The Church, represented by abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, believed in ‘universals’ with life God-created and ordered. The cleric Abelard, the keenest thinker and boldest theologian of the 12th Century, argued for ‘particulars’ and the importance of the individual.

It was remarkable that an audience could be engaged by such an abstract controversy. But with movement, swift changes of scene, repartee, humour, our interest was sustained as it was also by the pivotal event, the love story that acts out Abelard’s humanist philosophy.

Abelard is physically attracted to Heloise and also impressed by such a clever and well-read young woman – she refers to the Latin poet Juvenal who focuses on human futility and humanity's quest after greatness, a view with which Abelard agrees. Her uncle Fulbert, flattered by the great teacher’s attention to his niece, accepts Abelard’s offer to tutor her in return for a lodging in his house.

Their illicit affair, resulting in the birth of a baby boy, is publicly exposed and ecclesiastically condemned and they are forcibly separated. They find a way to meet at a convent, making love in a chapel – and symbolically) on an altar, before the vengeful Fulbert arranges for ruffians to castrate Abelard.

Having challenged Bernard to a debate before the church council at Sens (with sumptuously costumed bishops) the broken Abelard offers no defence to the charge of heresy. He ends life as an abbot, Heloise, an abbess.

The final song which gives the play its title is taken from a poem to Abelard by Heloise and declares that her love is ‘now and forever’.

For her, as for Shakespeare, the marriage of true minds admits no impediments: ‘Love is not love/ Which alters when it alteration finds.’

Three musicians with medieval instruments, and housed in a chamber above the players, helped to create the ambience. The strong cast was headed by David Sturzaker (Abelard) Jo Herbert (Heloise), Sam Cran(Bernard), Edward Peel (Fulbert) and Julius D’Silva (King Louis VI).

The director was John Dove who with his team was responsible for last year’s outstanding ETT production of Anne Boleyn. This is another.

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