Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz is accounted the most considerable literary figure in 17th-century 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 Calderón. 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 free- thinking writer and the Church’s attempts to muzzle her. An enlarged Velázquez 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. It’s a riveting encounter, with Boxer refusing to look at Catherine McCormack’s Juana until she emerges from behind the convent grille and compels him to do so. But just when you’re cheering her on in the belief that she’ll go to the stake rather than see her work burnt and renounce her vocation, something very different and shocking happens.
McCormack is superb as Juana, capturing her intelligence and her courageous dedication to her work. But she also allows you to glimpse her susceptibility to the attentions of Raymond Coulthard’s Santa Cruz, and her fear of it as weakness — fear too that her retreat into the cloister may be a retreat from her own desires and fulfilment as a person.
Sweeping confidently around her prison you can imagine her as effortlessly at home as at court. But now it’s the admiring Viceroy and Vicereine who must commune with her through the cloister’s gilded cage and seek to save her work from the censor. She and her faithful friend the Vicereine (Catherine Hamilton) seem like conspirators, sole defenders of the human heart against the imperatives of the Church. When her flighty postulant niece Angelica (Sarah Ovens) disastrously throws herself at a wolfish courtier, Juana is there to understand, and her loving relationship with her slave servant Juanita (the splendid and very funny Dona Croll) is no less movingly shown.
Geoffrey Beevers’s beautifully played Antonio is a fumbly old priest, skilled in arranging ‘concessions’ between the strictures of the Inquisition and the liberties necessary if a creative human soul is to thrive. Coulthard gives us the pragmatic prelate, who knows that only a sunnier, happier Catholicism than known to the Inquisition could thrive in Mexico. Iago-like in his determination to undermine the fanatically ascetic archbishop, he’s supportive of Juana and dangerously attracted to her until Teresa Banham’s jealous nun deceives him into betraying her trust to save his own skin.
Coulthard brings with him much of the patrician, oily charm and sly hypocrisy from his Duke of ‘dark corners’ in the RSC’s concurrent Measure for Measure. It cannot be accidental that the themes of spirited, free-thinking women, predatory repressed males and conflicts between priestly authority and the individual conscience feature so powerfully across The Heresy of Love, Measure for Measure and David Edgar’s fine play about the making of the King James Bible, Written on the Heart. All three are now playing at the Swan and hugely worth catching.