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Abelard and Heloise are on their way to becoming regulars on the Southwark stage. A few weeks ago the 12th-century lovers were to be found at Shakespeare’s Globe in Howard Brenton’s play In Extremis.
Now, in Gillian Clarke’s new drama Reverence, they scurry through the vaults beneath London Bridge station, christening Southwark Playhouse’s remarkable new venue.
Clarke’s play was written specifically for this space and she and the company, Goat and Monkey, work towards making the audience and the building part of the drama. The lovers’ story is played out among an oppressive religious order to which Abelard is affiliated in his capacity as teacher and logician.
And the company uses the damp, chilly vaults to good effect, filling them with whispering, hooded figures to create a brooding atmosphere.
We, the audience, are conscripted as novices. Cloaked in black habits, we are shepherded through dimly lit passages to lurk in corners, eavesdrop in corridors, perch on wooden boxes or kneel on the floor during a grim “purification” ceremony.
This is disorientating and effective, even if it does mean you spot the odd monk clutching a handbag or a bicycle helmet.
And the director Joel Scott makes good use of the space, choreographing the story around the tunnels and arches, using lighting and sound ingeniously to create eerie tableaux.
But the evening falls short because the dramatic use of space takes over, at the expense of the actual story. The context outweighs the content. The time spent shuffling from site to site slows down the action and the script itself lacks subtlety and even clarity.
Brenton’s play presented us with two people as intoxicated by ideas as by each other and conveyed the excitement and power of revolutionary thinking. That aspect of the story is missing here. Abelard is referred to as a daring thinker, but the nature of his unorthodoxy is never explored.
Neither is Heloise’s revulsion at her uncle’s demand that she marry Abelard. The historical context is vague, the theological debate is thin, the narrative is bitty and confusing and the confrontations have an edge of melodrama. The cast is strong, led by Pieter Lawman as a wild and wiry Abelard.
But when you start to notice how cold your feet are, it means the story is losing its grip.
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