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In Extremis at Shakespeare’s Globe

Marion Marples

Shakespeare's Globe's eleventh season showcases plays exploring Shakespeare's own time, including Othello, The Merchant of Venice and Love's Labour's Lost.

The first two are set in Venice, a vital cultural meeting point between East and West. Of the three new plays In Extremis by Howard Brenton is already a revival of last summer's hit. It describes the world of ideas debated hotly both in the early 12th century, at the Reformation and even today.

The production is largely the same as in 2006 with feisty Abelard (Oliver Boot), his pupil Helouise (Sally Bretton) and Cistercian opponent Bernard of Clairvaux (Jack Laskey) as passionate as ever.

Abelard is an adept teacher-philosopher and debates with verve and skill. He is matched by the well-read Canon Fulbert's niece Helouise. Their flagrant love affair scandalises the church establishment. When a baby is born Abelard persuades the reluctant Helouise to marry secretly, but even this drives Uncle Fulbert out of his mind. He pays thugs to brutally castrate Abelard.

This internal drama is played out alongside Abelard's continuing dispute with the ascetic Bernard who discerns that Abelard's thesis puts man at the centre of God's creation rather than his own conviction that God is the centre of creation. Do we recognise God through our own intellectual effort or is it divinely revealed?

The marriage is at an end, Abelard becomes a monk and Helouise a nun. Both rise to lead their communities.

Bernard continues to hound Abelard and challenges him to a comical rigged disputation in front of the King and Bishops. In spite of careful preparation, aided by Abbess Helouise, Abelard fails to respond to Bernard's eleven charges of heresy and is later excommunicated. The wise Abbot of Cluny shelters him but he soon dies. Abbess Helouise, though pious and prayerful, admits that even after all these years, she is constantly distracted by the memory of their love.

This heavyweight intellectual story is leavened by entertaining sideshows of ruffians and gossipy nuns.

Bill Lyons' organ, bells, recorder and shawm complement the action and the final rousing dance all recall the Globe's traditional Shakespearian plays.

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