There was a point in theater history when Diana Rigg was most famous for appearing onstage in the nude. That was back in 1970 in Ronald Millar’s “Abelard and Heloise,” a play that caused a sensation with its naked depiction of the 12th century’s most famous lovers — torn asunder in every sense (he was castrated). No such furor surrounds “In Extremis,” Howard Brenton’s portrait of the couple, and not just because they keep their clothes on. Brenton’s intriguing exhumation reminds us that they weren’t just tragic lovers, they were dangerous philosophers disastrously out of step with the rigid political thinking of their time.
Brenton wastes no time on flummery, kicking off instead with Oliver Boot’s charismatic, handsome Abelard leaping into anti-fundamentalist debate with a blinkered cleric in a manner that suggests he put “disputatious” in the dictionary.
The rigor and zest of his arguments make a convincing case for Abelard as the greatest scholar of the age. Furthermore, the vigor of Boot’s enthusiastic perf makes a watertight case for the instant attraction between thirtysomething Abelard and 17-year-old Heloise — an attraction that, in Brenton’s hands, is as intellectual as it is sexual.
Abelard is so used to being unchallenged that, having told her uncle that he will honor the family by taking her on as a pupil (behind suspiciously locked doors), he is startled but fired up by her combative response: “How will I know if what you teach is true unless I question it?”
Their minds, and their bodies, work as one but their use of Aristotelian logic to interpret scripture — which they argue brings one closer to God — actually brings them into fatally stark conflict with the religious authorities.
That “opposition” is represented by the century’s most famous mystic, Bernard of Clairvaux, an etiolated man whose fervid zeal leads him to mortify his flesh, starve himself and, to the horror and delight of the audience, lick the feet of the needy.
In Jack Laskey’s inspired performance, Bernard exudes an almost unnatural degree of energy that appears to spring directly from his asceticism. Laskey positively exudes the self-aggrandizing arrogance born of utter certainty. Only late in the play do we see just how politically astute he is being along the road to possibly becoming pope.
The lovers’ heretical views and relationship turn a dangerous situation into something highly flammable. The play is certainly not short of plot, and retribution catches up with them. Having hidden in a convent, the two are separated and forced to become an abbot and a nun in separate holy orders.
Like Brecht in the less sexually driven but not dissimilar “Life of Galileo,” Brenton is strongest at showing the destabilizing nature of radical thought, an idea that, to put it mildly, still resonates. He also ensures the debate is not one-sided not only by having Bernard give the thinkers an intellectual run for their money, but by making the two of them exuberantly naive.
Indeed, in Bretton’s well-grounded performance, the glowing, forthright Heloise emerges as a liberationist cross between a ’60s love-child and a ’70s feminist in medieval sleeves. She refuses to make their lives easier by marrying Abelard, as that would mean accepting the necessarily subservient role of wife.
On the downside, although individual scenes have power, the play as a whole never achieves dramatic liftoff. Exposition is often creaky and the actors’ energy keeps vanishing in the cracks between scenes.
The four-square period-style production does little to paper over the problems. Director John Dove elicits detailed perfs from the leads, but also encourages “Spamalot”-style “comedy” turns from clumsily drawn dim yokels, nameless monks, foolish courtiers and the like. And the climactic head-to-head between Abelard and Bernard is so awkwardly staged that the scene loses its required punch.
“In Extremis” ultimately vacillates between being a play of ideas and a seriocomic biography. That said, writing a play of serious debates that manages to hold the very particular, very public arena of the Globe is no mean feat.