Published on Public Reviews 7th March 2015
As we approach International Women’s Day, it has been refreshing to see Bristol Old Vic Theatre School put women centre stage during their Spring term. After a stand out Portia during Merchant of Venice, Helen Edmundson’s 2012 play explores another spirited woman, Juana Inés de la Cruz – poet, playwright, darling of the Mexican court, radical free thinker and nun. Her intellectual pursuits put her in direct conflict with a Catholic church determined to censor anything that may contradict their doctrines of faith; plays and poetry declared decadent and corrupt and banned. In a world of philosophical and scientific upheaval, Edmundson asks “can one woman stand up to the might of the church?”
The play fizzes with ideas and debates and it’s refreshing in an era where modern playwrights are creating so much small scale work (of economics if not ambition) to see a writer juggle with a piece on the scale of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. She challenges the modern sensibilities with a piece that favours ideas over action and plays a slow burn across its three hour running time. There are debates in the second half where the hairs raise on the back of the neck, the confrontation between Sister Juana (Erin Doherty) and the coldly terrifying Archbishop Aguiar y Seijas (Joel Macey) bubbles with a genuine sense of unease and withheld violence that both performers and director Jenny Stephens eke out, moment by terrifying moment.
These hair-raising moments occur when the characters display the emotions bubbling underneath the exterior, but the young actors struggle more to convey the depth and gravitas of characters with a lifetime of servitude to their God. They manage to catch the personal without fully grasping the political. There are exceptions to this; Macey is a truly terrifying antagonist, cold, dead-eyed, a high pitched voice of a zealot, who even manages to bring something to the clichéd self-flagellation scene, Doherty lays out her arguments for knowledge and learning concisely and Anna Riding shows the turmoil of a godly woman tearing herself inside out with seething jealousy of her more celebrated fellow sister.
The subplot of a first infatuation leading to tragedy is fudged by the decision to milk the lothario as a prototype Leslie Phillips, who one expects to utter ‘Ding Dong’ at every opportunity and Stephens doesn’t find a satisfying way to mark the passing of time, years pass in the timeline without appearing to on the stage, so the epic never fully comes across.
It’s all played out on a tight stage in the Bristol Old Vic studio with a simple but intelligent design by Elizabeth Rose who hangs an orb above the stage, a visual reminder that the Age of Enlightenment was sweeping new ideas across the world.
It’s an interesting rather than thrilling evening that argues for a life of free thinking and study over acceptance of the status quo. It’s a piece that reminds us of theatre’s primary function, as an arena for ideas and debate and if it doesn’t quite convey the epic over the personal, it’s another valuable lesson on these young actors’ journey and one for which the Bristol Old Vic school should be applauded.