The Heresy of Love at Bristol Old Vic

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If ever you were in doubt that Bristol’s emerging talent is poised to burst fully flowered onto the city’s stages, make sure that you visit the Studio of the Old Vic this week, where BOV Theatre School performs The Heresy of Love.

Set in late Seventeenth Century Mexico, The Heresy of Love follows the story of Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz, a nun who, like the rest of the country, lives under the yoke of Spain and the Catholic Church. For years, this beautiful and clever woman has been able to balance her devotion to God with her remarkable talent for writing and her aptitude for learning. Her intellect has attracted the attention and friendship of the Viceroy and Vicereine of Mexico, for whom she writes plays, and of courtiers, who commission her to write poems of love so they can woo other women. And of course, she pens hymns for the Church. However, a new Archbishop brings with him strict censorship laws and Sister Juana’s writings are too decadent in the dark days of the dreaded Spanish Inquisition. She must be stopped!

Helen Edmundson’s telling of Sister Juana’s (true) story focuses on love: the love of God; sororal love; romantic love; unrequited love, forbidden love and the love of learning. Though often told with humour, this play is, ultimately, a tragedy. It is a story of ambition, betrayal and the power struggles between men and women, God and the State.

Directed by Jenny Stephens, the cast of twelve is uber-strong and could easily hold their own in the larger BOV theatre. At almost three hours long (including interval), you’d never know it and I barely lose a word, so convincing is each character and so obvious is their torment in a world were freedom seems to be merely a word. Dominic Allen’s Bishop Santa Cruz is (initially) likeable and you’re glad he’s on our heroine’s side, while Joel Macey’s self-flagellating Archbishop is fresh-creepingly menacing.Tilly Steele’s slave Juanita owns the stage whenever she speaks and Erin Doherty plays Sister Juana with a certain glow that you just know the intellectual nun must have possessed.

However, the one character that I am constantly aware of is Sister Sebastiana, played by Anna Riding. Her expressions of jealousy and connivance are so real that you can almost see her brain working. From behind the bars that must separate these women of the convent from their Courtly visitors, she watches. Whilst reciting the Catechism and singing hymns with her sisters, she calculates. Feigning visions right there in the middle of Elizabeth Rose’s opulent yet essentially prison-like set, she convinces, helping to secure the nail that will hammer Juana into submission.

But not into oblivion. Sister Juana is an icon of female identity and strength in present-day Mexico. An activist who challenged the patriarchy and who pushed for equality between the sexes, she certainly has not been forgotten. And thank you to the team at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School for bringing her life and to the forefront of my mind with such persuasion.

The Heresy of Love plays at Bristol Old Vic until Saturday 14th March

– Review by Becky Condron

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