The Heresy of Love, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon


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Eight years ago, in their excellent Spanish Golden Age season, the RSC presented the English premiere of House of Desires, a surprising event on several levels.

For a start, it was a spirited farce with sequences that anticipated Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy in training a light on people hilariously blundering about in the dark.  Then again, it seemed to offer a mischievously seditious female angle on the rigidly macho code of honour prevalent in the seventeenth century.  But while you might have hazarded a guess, in a blindfold test, that the play had been written by a woman, clairvoyance would, I believe, have been needed to intuit that the female author was a nun.  Sor Juana de la Cruz (1651-1695), for it is she, is now the central focus of The Heresy of Love, a fascinating and highly impressive new play by Helen Edmundson.  She was inspired to write it by seeing the production of House of Desires, directed by Nancy Meckler.  The latter is at the helm again here in a handsome, urgently paced staging that is visually dominated by a beautiful blown-up detail, from a Velazquez Crucifixion, of Christ's bowed head on the cross. 

Juana was one of the most formidable intellects of her era and she continued to write secular plays and verses after she took the veil.  She became a nun because, in those days, liberal convents provided the equivalent of Virginia Woolf's "a Room of One's Own" to women who wanted to give priority to their intellectual existence over marriage.  And in a hideous, desolating twist, she ended by renouncing her right to a life of the mind.  The forces that drove this proto-feminist into such desperate apostasy are the subject of a piece that consciously models itself on a Spanish Golden Age drama with its intrigues, double-dealing clerics, heightened language, and comic servants.  With Catherine McCormack, a luminous, strong-featured Juana, the salutary play takes you deep into the unfamiliar culture of New Spain (aka current Mexico) at a time when there was tension between the colony and the motherland and between the vice-regal court and a church that was unleashing the Inquisition on all forms of dissent.

Fatal to her is the power-battle between the new absolutist martinet of an Archbishop (Stephen Boxer) and his passed-over rival, Bishop Santa Cruz (Raymond Coulthard), a handsome, slithery customer who is prepared to exploit anything and anyone (the fake mystical visions of a nun envious of Juana; a private manuscript that he publishes to Juana's horror).  The production is partly and pertinently cross-cast with Roxana Silbert's Measure for Measure and is just the right programming for the RSC.

To March 9