Magazine article The Spectator

Get Thee to a Nunnery

Magazine article The Spectator

Get Thee to a Nunnery

Article excerpt

Theatre 2

Get thee to a nunnery

House of Desires

Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

The face of a Spanish nun, her unhappy face encrusted with pustules characteristic of the plague, is the RSC's peculiar choice of publicity image for House of Desires, the joyous latest addition to its season of plays from the Golden Age. While it's true that its author, Sor Juana Inès de la Cruz, was indeed a nun who in 1695 died of the plague at the age of 44, nothing could be more idiotic than the choice of the pustular image for a comedy teeming only with infectious, life-giving energy. Maybe Sister Juana did indeed die less than happy, her great gift - she is now accounted the finest poet of Spanish Latin America in the late 17th century under perpetual siege from misogyny and Catholic monsignority. But this is no way to remember her, let alone bid her a belated welcome to Stratford.

For some years her literary ability and personality made her a favourite at the vice-regal court in Mexico City. There she evidently lived life to the full, sharing the court's delight in the cloak-and-dagger comedies of Calderón which she was to parody in House of Desires (its literal title in Spanish - Trials of a Noble House - is a knowing twist on Calderón's Trials of Chance). But as a passionately committed female scholar and poet she had little chance other than to take the veil. No regrets, though, about matrimony for which she expressed only 'abhorrence'. Thereafter her only commerce with the real world - which regularly sought her out for her wit and intellect - was from the wrong side of a convent grille.

She never saw House of Desires performed, but wrote herself into it as Leonor, a girl both beautiful and clever, poor but noble, desired by many men, and loved by one in particular. There is rich fantasy in this but not a drop of pathos or self-pity, for the devices and desires of the heart are burlesqued in every line in the play. In it, Sor Juana both locked and unlocked the secrets of her brilliant, enigmatic personality. It is not for nothing that at the Swan her House seems like a prison, the keys to whose cells - in which lovers may lie concealed or be restrained - are kept not by its mistress but by her maid Celia (Katherine Kelly), who of course knows better than most what's actually going on. …

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