In Extremis @ Shakespeare’s Globe, London

cast list
Oliver Boot
Sally Bretton
Jack Laskey
William Mannering
Patrick Brennan

directed by
John Dove
The final play in Dominic Dromgoole’s patchy first year asartistic director at the Globe tells the true story ofthe 12th century lovers Abelard and Heloise.

Written by Howard Brenton (of Romans in Britain infamy), In Extremis is set in Paris, around 1115. Peter Abelard (Oliver Boot), a philosopherand teacher, meets Heloise (Sally Bretton) the seventeen year old nieceof a prominent canon of the church and falls for her, completely anddangerously. The pair carry on an affair, which eventually leads to Heloise giving birth to a son, Abelard is punished with castration and the two lovers are separated, ultimately both joining religious orders.

While the piece follows the path of other plays on thissubject, using both Abelard’s books and the series of surviving letters between the two as inspiration, In Extremis is never just astraightforward love story. Instead, Brenton early on introduces atriangle of conflicting ideas that examine the philosophical argumentsthat raged around that time. Like Brecht’s The Life of Galileo (an excellent production of which is currently playing just down the river at the National Theatre) this plays examines the dangers inherent in attempting to discuss man’s place in the world, especially when it runs contrary to churchthinking.

Abelard, in his writing and teaching, attempted to apply Aristotelianlogic to discussions about God; Brenton brings in Bernard of Clairvaux(Jack Laskey), a Cistercian abbot, as the third side of the triangle.Bernard is a mystic who preaches that denial of the individual is thetrue path to a spiritual connection with God, while Abelard maintainsthat only through the application logic can we know God better – sowing the seeds of individualism.

Throughout the play, as the two lovers meet and fall in love, andare then torn away from one another and forced to begin new lives, this argument of spiritualism versus individualism forms the underpinning of the story.Laskey portrays Bernard as a zealot, bordering on insanity. Conversely Boot’sAbelard is often arrogant and is terribly egotistical, reveling in the celebrity of being the philosopher of the moment.

Heloise (played winningly by Sally Bretton) bridges the gapbetween the two; she is a devotee of Abelard’s, suggesting at one pointthat they are ‘philosophical warriors’. However, unlike Abelard, evenwhen she becomes a nun she refuses to dismiss the love she felt for himto a mistake, or a sin. Instead she argues that neither cool logic nor rabid spiritualism can bring God closer to man, only earthly love, passion and intellect can do so.

In addition to the three excellent central performances, William Mannering and Patrick Brennan offer some necessary light relief. My only criticism would be that, as in many of the productions at the Globe this year, the play at times lurches too close to pantomime – perhaps forgivable given the nature of the space and tourist-heavy audience who attend the Globe – but it often undermines the drama on stage. Furthermore, Brenton’s concentration on philosophical discussion sometimes threatens to get in the way of the emotional power of this famous love story.

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