Eternal Love – Review

Mar 19 2014 | By More

✭✭✭✩✩  Eternal zest

David Sturzaker and Jo Herbert. Photo © Stephen Vaughan

David Sturzaker and Jo Herbert. Photo © Stephen Vaughan

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
Tue 18 – Sat 22 March 2014
Review by Martin Gray

It’s hard to believe it’s been two years since the Globe Theatre brought Anne Boleyn to Edinburgh, so fresh is the memory. That’s a tribute to the power of the show, which saw playwright Howard Brenton make the tragic queen’s life relevant to today.

He pulls off a similar trick here, with the aid of several of the same people who made Boleyn such a success. And it’s perhaps an even more impressive manoeuvre, as Eternal Love is set further away in both time and distance – 12th-century France.

This is the story of Abelard and Heloise, lovers so legendary that some will be surprised to learn they were real people. But real they were, and Brenton’s script combined with the playing of actors David Sterzaker and Jo Herbert, quickly makes us care about them.

Peter Abelard is the master of logic challenging the orthodoxy of the Roman Catholic Church, an Enlightenment thinker centuries ahead of his time. Heloise is his young pupil who astonishes those around her by keeping up with him. They fall in love and Heloise gets pregnant, scandalising her guardian, Fulbert, a high-ranking clergyman at Notre Dame.

Meanwhile, ultra-conservative abbot and would-be pope Bernard of Clairvaux plots to silence Abelard, whose talent for debate challenges his insistence on unquestioning faith – Bernard cannot allow Abelard, who has a massive following, to put Man at the centre of Creation. The irony is that Abelard isn’t fighting Christianity, he’s saying: ‘We will give reason to the teachings of Christ’s Church.’

Eventually, Abelard is the victim of a horrific act, one which results in his parting from Heloise. All of which makes Abelard sound rather saintly, but his downfall is in large part due to his own ambition – he marries Heloise, then decrees the union must remain a secret, so as not to harm his own papal ambitions. Heloise’s relatives are not happy.

Overall, Eternal Love succeeds in being an entertaining, thought-provoking diversion, but it is not the triumph Anne Boleyn was. Brenton’s script doesn’t make enough of Abelard’s selfishness, with Heloise barely protesting his decision to sacrifice her happiness to his ambitions.

Similarly, the fact that he, if not grooms, then totally takes advantage of his position to seduce Heloise – at 13, a couple of decades his junior – is hardly acknowledged, never mind condemned. If a play ‘goes modern’ with attitudes and characterisations, it can’t, in fairness, then gloss over what we today consider to be major unpleasantries. Instead, it invites its audience to be as charmed by Abelard as is his young lover.

“the most jolly hockeysticks Frenchwoman you ever did see…”

And it’s easy to like Abelard, with David Sterzaker bringing considerable charisma to the part, playing the younger iteration with puppyish intelligence, and the older version with wisdom and serenity.

Sam Crane, Daisy Hughes, Kevin Bishop, Claire Bond, Edward Peel and Rhiannon Oliver.  Photo © Stephen Vaughan

Sam Crane, Daisy Hughes, Kevin Bishop, Claire Bond, Edward Peel and Rhiannon Oliver. Photo © Stephen Vaughan

Jo Herbert’s Heloise is more one note, the same person in her forties as she is at 13 – the most jolly hockeysticks Frenchwoman you ever did see. Perhaps this approach is meant to show the character’s lifelong self-possession, but it didn’t work for me.

The problem with Heloise isn’t all down to the choices of Herbert, or director John Dove, mind – Brenton’s closing scene sees Heloise not so much at peace with Abelard’s death as barely concerned; and the moment in which she shows Bernard a 21st-century version of Abelard’s words is as cringeworthy as it is unnecessary.

As Bernard, Kevin Leslie (understudy on for Sam Crane) isn’t required to go on much of an emotional journey at all – he’s a zealot from beginning to end; but Leslie’s interpretation of Brenton’s words makes him a fascinating zealot. I found myself wanting to be on his side, despite myself.

There’s a broadness to the minor parts that the original Globe audiences would have appreciated. A few of the characters could happily be excommunicated, starting with the marvellously named Cousin 2, whose schtick is to repeat the end of other people’s sentences. Oh, and he masturbates into a tree, to no dramatic point.

Light and shade are good: a bit of humour puts the darker parts into sharper relief, but the more slapstick moments in Eternal Love seem to belong in another play. There are a fair few witty lines that arise naturally, and that’s where Brenton should have stopped.

Given a narrative spanning several decades and turning on the intricacies of competing theological and philosophical positions, its not surprising there’s a lot of not-always successful expository dialogue. Actors have to take a deep breath, deliver the info-dumps on papal or court procedure, and hope the audience just goes with it.

Musicians William Lyons, Rebecca Austen-Brown and Arngeir Hauksson are perched above the stage like angels on a frieze, and they are indeed rather heavenly. Early Music specialist Lyons’ lovely score weaves in and out of the story, with medieval instruments underlining the action and emotion. A trio of songs adds colour and commentary, while a closing dance is bizarre and camp and rather excellent.

A unified theatrical experience Eternal Love is not, with changes in tone fighting against the two main plot threads. It is strangely fun, though, mutilation notwithstanding. And the message that “Love Conquers All, Sort Of” isn’t a bad one to take out into a cold, 21st-century night.

Running time 2 hr 15 mins (includes break)
Run ends Saturday 22 March 2014
Daily, 7.30pm; (Wed, Sat: 2.30pm matinee)
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street EH3 9LQ
Tickets from

To buy the script from Amazon click through image above.


Eternal Love on tour:

18 Mar – 22 Mar 2014 Edinburgh
King’s Theatre
0131 529 6000 Book online
25 Mar – 29 Mar 2014 Malvern
Festival Theatre
01684 892277 Book online
1 Apr – 5 Apr 2014 Brighton
Theatre Royal
0844 871 7650 Book online
9 Apr – 12 Apr 2014 Canterbury
The Marlowe Theatre
01227 787787 Book online


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