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A CurtainUp London Review
by Brian Clover
The veteran playwright offers us a piece fresh enough to have been penned at the very start of his career. It is twelfth century France and iconoclastic young philosopher Peter Abelard dazzles high and low, town and country with his debating skills. The old ecclesiastic order starts to collapse, scythed down by his laser logic. But that's not all that falls: maidens also swoon, since, as Woody Allen put it, Abelard's brain is only his second favourite organ. Rather dumbly, for such a sharp geezer, Peter (Oliver Boot) starts a passionate affair with the equally brainy, feisty and beautiful Heloise (Sally Bretton), without benefit of clergy, or contraception.
As you may already be aware, this ends badly. Peter's favourite organ is modified on the orders of Heloise's infuriated uncle. Peter ends up a monk and Heloise a nun. To Western literature's gain the lovers spend the rest of their lives exchanging letters instead of body fluids. (Fans of Being John Malkovich will be familiar with John Cusack's ill-advised street puppet version of the great love story.) But Peter is forced out of retirement to take one last stand against the gathering forces of darkness and reaction, personified by his nemesis, self-mortifying but media-canny Bernard de Clairvaux (Jack Laskey). Can he still debate like the hot-blooded, cool-thinking, fully intact young man he once was? If so, then European history may take the path of light and reason. Otherwise . . .
This is an ambitious play with strong themes and it is a pleasure to see a fine company working the Globe stage for all it is worth. Some might find the set too spare, forcing the actors to signal their location at the start of each scene, but this makes us concentrate on the acting and the words.
And here I have a difficulty: Brenton seems to take two directions with his material. On one hand he is presenting an heroic period chronicle in the tradition of Bolt, Brecht and Osborn. On the other, as if unhappy with this convention, he undermines it with a bag of ironic tricks to remind us that this is a piece of devised theatre. There are anachronisms, wisecracks, and Pirandellian asides as well as nudges at Beckett, Stoppard and even, possibly, Monty Python. But any play which combines foot-licking and philosophy, God and gelding, has got something going for it.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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