REVIEW: Eternal Love (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, April 5)

The ill-fated 12th Century affair between two of France’s most famous lovers is played out against a backdrop of philosophical argument and religious fervour in the tremendous English Touring Theatre production of the Globe’s Eternal Love.

The ETT (celebrating its 21st birthday this year) is always more than welcome at Brighton, and Howard Brenton’s gripping, humorous, thought-provoking and surprisingly contemporary retelling of the story of Abelard and Heloise is a triumph of creative writing, quality direction by John Dove, and superb ensemble playing.

While the play is undoubtedly intellectually demanding, it is equally stimulating and quickly draws the audience in to its world of fundamentalism, radicalism, dialectic and scholarly debate without the mood ever becoming too heavy.

References are made to the legend of Tristan and Isolde, but the real-life story of Abelard and Heloise is portrayed in Brenton’s play (first performed at the Globe a few years back with the title In Extremis) as far less prosaic, a meeting of hearts and minds certainly, with an epic feel, but set against a battle of ideas and questions of faith.

David Sturzaker and Jo Herbert as the far from star-crossed lovers are terrific. We are given a real sense of their aristocratic and academic background and it is no surprise that teacher and pupil should develop such an infatuation with one another, though their unwillingness to be entirely discreet sometimes makes it hard to warm to them. They have an anarchic, arrogant and self-destructive quality which makes them all too human and the two actors are exceptionally well-matched.

But the play is not just about forbidden love being frowned upon and punished, there is the deeper conflict with the Church, represented largely by Sam Crane’s magnetic performance as Bernard of Clairvaux. Crane gives one of those masterful performances which should win awards: a devout but manipulative man of God, fanatical, obsessed and determined (we need to see him as Hamlet as soon as possible!).

Very strong performances too from Edward Peel as Heloise’s pious and horrified uncle Fulbert and Sally Edwards as a worldly-wise Mother Helene, but it must be said that the whole cast is strong in a variety of roles.

The first-night audience gave a rousing reception to the play and to the company and deservedly so. It might not be the sort of light and frothy piece many theatregoers prefer, but it gets you thinking not just about how things were but also more immediately how things are, in such areas as ethics, religion, the Christian faith, and deep love.