Following on from last years amazing Anne Boleyn, the English Touring Theatre last night opened their new tour at Darlington Civic Theatre and proved, yet again, that nothing compares to live theatre.
For many, the story of Abelard and Heloise is pretty much unknown; I had very little idea as to what this tragic love story was about but I think helped to ensure there were no preconceived ideas or expectations. Indeed, it is very rare to come to a show and not have some degree of prejudged understanding leading to "I'm looking forward to the part...." or "I expect the 2nd act to be better". I was able to relax, sit back and allow this show to take me wherever director John Dove wanted me to go. The cast, of which many were part of the previous tour, were again very engaging, spending time preshow to mingle with the audience, sing songs and create a very inclusive atmosphere which heightened the feeling that we were about to be told a story.
The premise of Eternal Love is the conflict between the religious zeal of the 12th Century (with all its beyond-reproach idealisms) and a new wave of challenging thought based on the philosophical teachings of ancient Greece. Whilst there is a fundamental love story sitting beneath the eloquent yet lengthy battling monologues, the true driver throughout is the juxtaposition between accepting religion as the one true faith whilst trying to disassemble the religious teachings to 'make sense' of just why we believe.
David Sturzaker, who had given great life to Henry VIII last year, brought a sense of mischief, wonder, confidence and singlemindedness to Abelard. Happy to take all ridicule for his unconventional approach to understanding the scriptures, his only real downside is his belief that everyone should question everything - this lands him foul with the established clergy whose lives, wellbeing (and in no small part, power) rest on the unswerving and unquestioning faith of their flock. When he falls in love with a student (who subsequently bears him a child out of wedlock) his fate is sealed.
Jo Herbert, who was the stand out actress of 2013 for her part as Anne Boleyn, plays Heloise with a similar determination as her previous role; head strong, passionate and confident women are very much Jo's forte and Eternal Love is very much the winner for it. Heloise falls for Abelard completely, although it takes some time to establish whether it is him or his refusal to conform that she finds most attractive - even the scandal of bearing his child cannot persuade her to relent and follow her Bishop uncle. This leads to a rather graphic and somewhat barbaric solution by the shunned & humiliated clergy which still cannot dim the flames.
True to previous productions, the ETT manage to bring humour, wit, music and a few slightly gross-out moments to the proceedings whilst keeping things feeling quite 'grown up' without being pretentious; it does not pitter patter around, if something needs saying then it is said and, unfortunately for some of the male members of the audience, if something needs doing, then it is done!! True, the dialogue and writing style mean you need to 'get your ear in' to really appreciate all that is being said, but for someone who has regularly questioned religion and faith I found the logical & philosophical arguments very entertaining with many a nod in agreement.