Until now dramas about Heloise and her lover Peter Abelard have drawn on those over-ripe tales of priestly lust and castration in the shadows of 12th-century Notre Dame - or on the passionate love letters they exchanged during the long years of separation, making them figures of romantic tragedy.
Howard Brenton weaves their sexual romance into his brilliant new play. But he also reveals the couple’s bold intellectual cut and thrust, both with each other and with French religious society: he as a Christian rationalist, she a clever bluestocking with a strong practical and emotional streak. The result is a thought-provoking, highly entertaining text for our own times.
Oliver Boot and Sally Bretton play the lovers with attractive warmth, even a degree of arrogance. But their relationship is rocked by scandal, while Abelard’s disputative theology, anticipating the Enlightenment by six centuries, is seen as a threat by conservative churchmen led by fundamentalist Bernard of Clairvaux, played by Jack Laskey.
Abelard maintains that God, having given us brains, expects us to reason, while Bernard rightly perceives that such freedom of thought will lead to secularism.
On a plain stage with simple medieval costumes, the play is packed with character-driven comic moments but the director John Dove wisely avoids the temptation to play to the groundlings, thus maintaining the dramatic tension between low life and high thinking.
Fine supporting performances come from Sheila Reid as the pragmatic abbess Helene, who helps Heloise come to terms with her loss, and from Fred Ridgeway as doting uncle Fulbert.
A closely-reasoned chamber piece, it offers few opportunities for bold Globe spectacle. But it is already apparent from this spirited premiere that Brenton’s play, like Brecht’s somewhat similar Galileo, is a modern classic that should also grace other stages, both here and abroad.