In Extremis, Shakespeare's Globe, London <br/> The Daughter-in-Law, Palace, Watford <br/> Rabbit, Trafalgar Studios, London

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The Independent Culture

Uniting passion and brain power is, self-evidently, a sexy idea. Howard Brenton's new play, In Extremis, dramatises the great love story of France's 12th-century free spirits, Heloise and Abelard. Before being compelled to enter holy orders and confine their memories of carnal pleasures to epistles, they were a famously amorous and intellectually dazzling couple - a match in body and mind.

What's most exciting about director John Dove's Globe premiere, in medieval dress, is that at key points, Oliver Boot's tall, dark and charismatic Abelard conveys the thrill of grasping new ideas and arguing fiercely for their acceptance. Essentially, Abelard is depicted as an enlightened thinker ahead of his time, a philosopher who - inspired by Aristotle - risks applying logic and dialectical reasoning to the Bible, established Christian doctrines and the world around him.

We first see Boot somewhat smugly knocking the Platonic notions of his tutor, William of Champeaux, into a cocked hat. Then he develops into a potentially revolutionary cult leader, teaching his followers out in the fields. Regarded by pro-mystical clerics as dangerously close to killing God, he is pitted against the ascetic abbot, Bernard of Clairvaux (a feverous Jack Laskey).

Meanwhile, Abelard and his private teenage pupil, Sally Bretton's Heloise, have swiftly embarked on a closet (and al fresco) affair, unbeknownst to her canon uncle, Fulbert. When Fred Ridgeway's outraged Fulbert learns the truth, Heloise refuses to repent and emerges as a kind of proto-feminist or radical romantic, scorning marital bonds.

Alas, the fleeing couple's combined grey matter fails to save Abelard from being punitively castrated by Fulbert's henchmen.

Brenton's protagonists invite numerous comparisons, reverberating down the centuries, from Galileo to Nietzsche, from St Francis and St Clare to Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Beyond that, they embody the principles of sexual liberation and scientific enquiry versus religious fundamentalism.

None of which, however, saves In Extremis from being, all too often, dramatically clumsy; exacerbated by Dove's lack of directorial nuance and polish. Brenton's recent controversial NT play, Paul - depicting the early Christian visionary as an epileptic - was more taut. Here, in a bid to combine theological debates with boisterous comedy, the evening lapses into sometimes crass caricature: dumb yokels, burping bishops, pitifully lame thugs, and tiresome girly giggling from Heloise's entourage.

Sally Bretton does have a resolute innocence but it's rather bland, failing to explore the psychological complexity of Heloise's statement that she wishes to be Abelard's whore (a comment taken from her letters).

Characters' developments come in jolts and the occasional games played with time seem scrambled. Equally startling is what potentially dramatic and poignant scenes Brenton omits, especially Abelard's death in Heloise's arms. As for historical accuracy, you would never guess - among other things - that Heloise had on occasion resisted sex and been threatened with blows by Abelard (as his missives record). Perhaps the accusation of mythologising - directed at Fulbert and Bernard by Heloise - should be applied to Brenton's own playwrighting processes.

Married life definitely isn't bliss in The Daughter-In-Law, D H Lawrence's early mining-community drama, starring Charlotte Emmerson in the title role. The newly-weds, Luther and Minnie, are already tearing each other apart, egged on by his possessive mother, Gwyneth Powell's Mrs Gascoigne, and mirroring in their private disputes an escalating conflict at the pit between workers and bosses. Beside the fascinating richness of Lawrence's now archaic Nottinghamshire dialect, his unflinching depiction of raw quarrels and festering class aggro foreshadows Osborne's Look Back in Anger very strikingly. Emmerson and Jack Sandle's Luther grow scorchingly bitter, while also revealing deeper seams of tenderness and desire.

Unfortunately, though, Kirstie Davis's production has weak links. Powell needs to pack more of a punch and the pacing is so slow that the cast's energy seeps away into the coal-black chasms of the set.

Finally, Rabbit proves that Nina Raine (daughter of the poet, Craig) is not just a fast-rising director but also a fledgling writer of promise. Shortlisted for the Verity Bargate Award, her debut play is set in a trendy bar where Charlotte Randle's mouthy but vulnerable Bella is celebrating her 29th birthday with her middle-class friends and ex-lovers, half of whom are quarrelsome and egocentric.

The snarking does get monotonous, set speeches stick out, and the flashback memories of Bella's father - who is dying in hospital - are underdeveloped. Nevertheless, at its best, Raine's dialogue is witty and insightful and the acting is excellent. Playing the quietly watchful medic, Emily, newcomer Ruth Everett should go places, and Adam James is also outstanding as the swaggering, emotionally wounded barrister, Richard. Commended.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

'In Extremis' (020 7401 9919) to 7 Oct; 'Rabbit' (0870 060 6632) to 7 Oct; 'The Daughter-in-Law' (01923 225671) to 23 Sept

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