By Helen Edmundson
What an intriguing premise – a portrait of a seventeenth century nun and not just any nun. Juana Ines de la Cruz (Naomi Frederick). A Super-nun!
Renowned female scholar, poet and playwright in Mexico, then a colony of the Spanish Empire. Born into racial and hierarchical complexity, she was one of six illegitimate children from a Criolla (of mixed race ancestry) mother and two different Spanish soldier fathers.
Helen Edmundson’s 2012 play, The Heresy Of Love, inspired by a staging of Sister Juana’s Baroque comedy House of Desires eight years earlier, first surfaced to great acclaim at the RSC’s smaller space, The Swan, in a season alongside Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure and David Edgar’s St James’s Bible anniversary play Written on the Heart.
Now directed by John Dove, it is part of Shakespeare’s Globe Justice and Mercy season.
So TLT, not having seen the earlier incarnation, emerged from her cloister with her scarlet carriage looking forward to a major historical drama centred on a phenomenally-gifted woman writer constrained by contradictory and shifting circumstances of Church, Court and Empire.
Despite only few undisputed facts of Sister Juana’s life, there is certainly enough there to provide a meaty dramatic discussion in the context of our twenty first, as well as seventeenth century, preoccupations. Except that for TLT and companion, that discussion never came.
Maybe it was swamped by the much larger proportions of The Globe's thrust stage with grilles at the back, extended into the audience, we fancy, in the shape of a cross (design: Michael Taylor). However the piece’s linear telling of Juana’s story, use of Baroque play structure with some cod-Shakespearean devices, stayed firmly within the stereotype for us.
There were tantalizing lines and possible story lines.
The need to earn a living from commissions. The relationship with other nuns equally imprisoned by their sex and class, manoeuvring their lives, wealth and intellects within the confines of “New Spain” politics and the dreaded Inquisition.
The wife of a powerful patron still subjugated by the need to produce son and heir. The illegitimate babies. The scholar nun, still very much maintaining the caste system by owning a mulatto female slave, but licensed briefly to hold her salons of secular as well as religious learning within the convent.
The secret courts and selective record keeping.
But all this seemed thrown away and much of the history recounted outside character. Sister Juana herself seemed curiously marginalised and muted with the weak and trapped Father Antonio (Patrick Driver) and the true-history plotting of Bishop Santa Cruz (Anthony Howell) leaving the more conflicted imprint on the play.
Juana’s battle for her career and finally her life against the Archbishop Aguiar y Sejas (Phil Whitchurch as sour as the lemon he held in his hand) is allowed to fizzle out. It seems heresy to say it but the male scheming from the very beginning of The Heresy Of Love pulls the play itself away from its female subject and gives it whatever dynamism and rhythm comes through.
This is a shame as the Golden Age Of Spanish drama during Sister Juana’s lifetime not only allowed her plays to be published and staged to great acclaim in Spain and its empire, but also permitted female actors to play female characters when boys still monopolised such roles in England.
There are some more lively, if rather obvious, moments with Vicereine patroness (an elegant Ellie Piercy), slave confidante Juanita (rumbustious Sophia Nomvete) and Juana’s niece Angelica (a fetching Gwyneth Keyworth) plus a final visual design transformation of Juana in her downfall gives a hint of more depth and subtlety.
Maybe in a smaller space, or even on screen, the granting of leeway for women in theatre and cloister, the dramatic possibilities of interplay between the excesses of the Baroque form and censorship, the illegitimate babies and the fatal real-life theatricality of male dominated church and state could bring a much more intricately human and open ended reading of the same piece.
This play certainly opens up a subject which we knew nothing about but at the same time only just about scrapes through into an amber light.
Still, writer Helen Edmundson appears to be on a roll with an upcoming play on Queen Anne at the RSC and an adaptation of Zola’s Therese Raquin for Keira Knightley on Broadway.
In the meantime, for those interested, Sister Juana is championed by poet Octavio Paz in his 1982 biography, the subject of a couple of early twenty-first century plays by American-Mexican playwrights Estela Portillo and Karen Zacarias and a 1990 biopic from filmmaker Maria Luisa Bemberg.