Magazine article The Spectator

Songbird in a Gilded Cage

Magazine article The Spectator

Songbird in a Gilded Cage

Article excerpt

The Heresy of Love Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in rep until 9 March Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz is accounted the most considerable literary figure in 17thcentury Latin America. I'm happy to take this on trust, remembering with great pleasure her comedy The House of Desires, a palpable hit when given in 2004 as part of the RSC's still memorable festival of plays from the Spanish Golden Age.

Sister Juana, born in 1651, was a favourite in the viceregal court in Mexico City. She shared the court's delight in the cloak-and-dagger comedies of Calderon. But as a scholar and poet who expressed 'abhorrence' for matrimony, she had no option but to take the veil. Although this gave her the freedom to write, it didn't allow her to leave the convent to see her play performed. In it she penned a barely disguised portrait of herself as Leonor, a girl both beautiful and clever, poor but noble, desired by many men and loved by one in particular. Entirely devoid of rancour and without a drop of pathos or self-pity, House of Desires is a rich fantasy in which the devices and desires of the heart are burlesqued in every line. Under constant siege from misogyny and Catholic bigotry, Sister Juana perished from the plague in 1695 at the age of 44.

Among those impressed at Stratford in 2004 was Helen Edmundson, whose work includes award-winning adaptations of Anna Karenina, The Mill on the Floss and Coram Boy. In her terrific new play, The Heresy of Love, she gives an arresting portrait of Sister Juana, part fact part fiction, dramatising the conflicts between the woman, the freethinking writer and the Church's attempts to muzzle her. An enlarged Velazquez image of Christ's head bowed under its crown of thorns dominates Katrina Lindsay's period setting for Nancy Meckler's strongly cast and tautly directed production.

Sister Juana's privileged convent life of study and authorship is disrupted by the arrival of an Inquisitorial archbishop who knows that love-poetry and plays, especially when written by a woman, are the work of the devil. Juana's father confessor, Antonio, and Bishop Santa Cruz, whose views of Holy Writ are broad enough to accommodate writings highly prized by the court, are now in a difficult position. Matters become even more fraught when Santa Cruz conceives a desire for Juana that isn't repulsed.

Juana's conviction that her work is God's gift and His purpose for her human life is confirmed in searching conversations with Antonio and Santa Cruz. But finally she comes up against Stephen Boxer's appalling, self-flagellating archbishop. …

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