This excellent new play by Helen Edmundson is the third of the RSC’s linked plays – Written on the Heart, Measure for Measure and The Heresy of Love. Its a powerful and emotional play about intellectual freedom and betrayal. The main character is Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz, based on Sor Juana of Mexico who became one of the most significant playwrights of the Spanish Golden Age but whose work was suppressed by the Church.
Sister Juana is a modern woman, born in the wrong way (she was illegitimate) in the wrong place (Mexico) at the wrong time (that of the Spanish Inquisition) and the wrong sex (female). She is powerfully played by Catherine McCormack who conveys Sister Juana’s intellectual honesty as well as her radiant beauty aided by clever costuming and lighting. The play’s conflict is between her and the repressive church, represented by an astonishingly vile bigot, Archbishop Aguiar y Seijas played as skilfully by Stephen Boxer as hisÂ William TyndaleÂ was in Written on the Heart. In the middle for a while is the more liberal Bishop Santa Cruz (Raymond Coulthard) until his political schemings force him to change his tactics.
The messages about human frailty, pride and betrayal are as relevant now as they were in the seventeenth century. Director Nancy Meckler deemphasises the RomanÂ Catholic in order to prompt thought about any kind of self-righteous repressive regime characterised by power, male dominance, self-interest and self-righteousness. There is a significant elemnent of the play about heresy, but it is heresy in any kind of context, and about love, but love, lust and self-regarding are more important ideas than those about love of God.
That is why, perhaps, the second part opens with the Archbishop engaged in an amazingly self-regarding narcissistic display of sado-masochisticÂ self-flagellationÂ which sets the conceptual framework for the second half of the play.
In the end armageddon beckons with the results of the betrayals, the arrival of floods, the plague and the death of many of the main characters. While the Archbishop proclaims that this is all an indication that God is angry the audience looks for other interpretations and finds them in human behaviour rather than in religious doctrine. I was drawn to betrayal. Most of the main characters engage in betrayalÂ at some point. Towards the end Sister Juana is revealed to have betrayed her niece and herself. The Spanish court represented by the Viceroy and Vicereine betray Mexico by their departure from the country and even Juana’s loyal slave Juanita, beautifully played by Dona Croll, betrays her mistress by allowing Sister Juana’s niece to engage in a sexual liaison with the vacuous courtier Don Hernando.
This play has a very strong cast – Geoffrey Beavers as Father Antonio, Marty Cruikshank as Brigida, Teresa Banham as Sister Sebastiana and Catherine Hamilton as the Vicereine all offer us fully realised characters – and there was a lot of laughter from the audience which only highlighted the horror of the betrayals. The unitary set is beautifully managed, the blocking on the thrust is unfussily handled and the emtoional patterning of the play ensures that the audience is kept spellbound throughout. Not only are the costumes lovely and effective; the use of posture as a characterisation and emotional tool is splendid. Something else I enjoyed enormously was the singing.
I thought that it would be unlikely that I would see anything else this season which I enjoyed as much as I had enjoyed Written on the Heart. Even without the almostÂ incomparable Oliver Ford Davies I enjoyed this production just as much. And because the links between the three plays are so complexÂ and interesting, I am tempted to see Measure for Measure again.
If you get the chance try to see all three;Â ifÂ you can or if you can’tÂ a warm welcome at Moss Cottage awaits you.