By Helen Edmundson
Directed by Nancy Meckler
Venue: Swan Theatre
Date: Thursday 8th March 2012
This is a great new play; I really don’t think I’ll be able to fully express how moving and entertaining it was, but I’ll do my best. As an experience it felt very complete, and the actors in the post-show commented on how little the dialogue was changed during the rehearsal process. There were great performances all round and plenty of humour, although as the play drew to its conclusion that naturally lessened as death and destruction rained down on Mexico. It was full of ideas and arguments, but underpinning it all was that understanding of the direct approach of the heart, which knows no boundaries and heeds no rules made by man. And it was men making the rules in this society, and then using those rules to supress one half of the population – shame on them. They had their reasons, and I loved the way every character not only had a chance to express their point of view, but were given a valid perspective which I could respect, even if I completely disagreed with it; the piece was the stronger for it.
The play was based on the life of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a Mexican nun who defied the rules to read widely and to write – plays, poetry and other material on a wide range of subjects. Her success was due to the influence of the Mexican court, especially the friendship and support of the Vice Regent’s wife, while her downfall was due to the unease felt by many men within the Catholic hierarchy at such a graphic and popular demonstration of mental ability by a woman. It was clear from the play that women’s roles in Spanish society at that time were very limited – wife and mother, nun, or fallen woman were all that seemed to be on offer – and so Sor Juana’s choice to take the veil had a degree of ambiguity to it; did she cloister herself from her love of Jesus or from her love of learning? And are the two things actually incompatible, or was that just the official (male) view at the time?
The play opened with a scene demonstrating the change of policy that came with the new archbishop, Aguiar Y Seijas (Stephen Boxer). The laxity of the Mexican Catholic community had troubled the central command of the Spanish church, so the new archbishop had been chosen to restore order, which included a crackdown on the freedoms enjoyed by, amongst others, the nuns of various orders. Two other clergymen had been summoned to meet him privately; one, Bishop Santa Cruz (Raymond Coulthard) was known for his work with women, especially nuns given to ecstatic visions, while the other, Father Antonio (Geoffrey Beevers) was Sor Juana’s confessor and in that role had persuaded her to take the veil. He was a vacillator: when chastened by the new archbishop about Sor Juana’s literary activity, not normally allowed to a nun in any order, he confessed that he had probably been weak in his work with her, but he had hoped to convince her of the error of her ways. Sor Juana’s view was that he had supported her in her activities, and she was quite shocked to discover his change of heart. Bishop Santa Cruz saw Sor Juana as a splendid example of what women could achieve, but given the way he was passed over for promotion and the incompatibility of his views with the new regime, he became interested in Sor Juana mainly as a political pawn, someone he could use to torment the archbishop while in public seeming to be on his side. His political manoeuvring supplied a lot of the comedy moments in the play, and was an interesting counterpoint to the machinations of the Duke in Measure for Measure, the other role played by Raymond Coulthard in this mini-season.
The scenes in the convent were usually in either the locutory or Sor Juana’s cell, if cell it could be called – bit bigger than the usual allocation. The locutory was set up by a circular wall of railings which was moved round onto the stage. It had a small door to the right, and stools were often set up outside it, as with the first visit of the Vice Regent and his wife. Sor Juana’s cell had a small table and chair against the back wall – this was covered by a large picture of the head of Christ on the cross – and not much else, although the characters talked of and pretended to look at lots of books which she’d collected. For the final scenes, the convent started to crumble, and so a large piece of the wall fell forward and stayed that way till the end of the play. For the scenes in the archbishop’s palace, there was a chandelier, a throne and not much else as I recall. The set supported the production beautifully, with costumes to match.
In the convent there was a lot of affection for Sor Juana which seemed to be based mainly on her popularity at court, with many gifts being brought for her (and what happened to the vow of poverty?) and many visits from the vice-regal couple. There was also jealousy, of course, manifesting in the bitterness of Sister Sebastiana (Teresa Banham) who was the convent’s gatekeeper. Her desire for revenge was so strong that she connived in the seduction and ravishing of Sor Juana’s niece, young Angelica, who was not yet old enough to take holy orders. The seducer was Don Hernando (Simon Thorp), one of the Vice Regent’s supporters, who had no compunction in ruining Angelica’s life and prospects of marriage. Sister Sebastiana also used Bishop Santa Cruz’s known interest in visions to lure him away from his support for Sor Juana; I reckoned at the time she was making it all up, although as she was clearly highly strung it’s possible that she believed in these experiences.
Sor Juana remained oblivious to all of these machinations which were whirled around her until a trick by Bishop Santa Cruz exposed her private thoughts on a sermon by the archbishop. With the threat of interrogation by the Inquisition looming over her, she had a final confrontation with the archbishop himself, during which both put forward their arguments passionately and clearly. It was only the mention of her niece’s fate that put Sor Juana off her stride; up to this point she was unaware of what had happened, and her realisation that she failed to keep her niece safe from the dangers of the world, as she was supposed to do, finally weakened her confidence enough to cause her to renounce her work and confess her ‘sins’. The play ended with the Vice-Regent and his family retuning to Spain, along with Don Hernando, as plague and torrential rain swept through Mexico City. Sor Juana, having confessed her sins and renounced her writing, spent her final days tending the sick in the convent, and also died of the plague. The last scene showed Bishop Santa Cruz turning up at the locutory only to hear the news of her death, and his final musings about putting up a statue to this unusual nun were a fitting end to the story of a woman whose talent and determination got her into so much trouble.
The play has so many levels to it that I find it hard to explain its effect on me. Helen Edmundson intended to use many of the themes of the Spanish Golden Age dramas to tell this story, and she’s done an excellent job. There were contrivances, disguises (Angelica pretending to be her much taller aunt was a funny one), servants who help and hinder, and even touches of Measure For Measure in the way the Bishop suddenly found himself sexually attracted to Sor Juana, his intellectual equal; the less well educated women he’d been helping out for many years had never interested him, despite gossip to the contrary. In fact, I reckoned it was this sudden change of awareness and accompanying sense of guilt that made the Bishop so ready to believe Sister Sebastiana’s cunning lie about Sor Juana. She reluctantly ‘confessed’ that she’d heard Sor Juana telling the other nuns about how he touched her during a previous visit, and that was why she was uncertain about spending time with him to describe her visions. This apparent slander on his good name, semi-deserved as it was, offended the Bishop greatly, and Sor Juana would no longer receive his protection. This sort of complexity was rampant throughout the play, and made for a very rich experience.
As Sor Juana, Catherine McCormack gave a splendid central performance. She had no problem conveying the woman’s intelligence, determination and lack of political awareness. I did find myself thinking at times that she was in the wrong to insist on doing something that was against the rules she’d taken a vow to obey, but at the same time she was championing the rights to free thought and free expression which are so important to all of us. It was a sad ending, though not a downbeat one, and I hope to see this play again sometime. It’s been an amazing mini-season in the Swan this winter, with intelligent plays that demand a lot of the audience – long may this continue.
© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me