As rom-coms go, Howard Brenton's reimagining of the love affair between 12th century French philosopher Peter Abelard and his teenage student and nun Heloise d'Argenteuil is cleverer than anything Richard Curtis has ever written. Yet, as the play's title indicates since it was changed from the loftier In Extremis when first seen at Shakespeare's Globe in 2006, despite the prevalence of dialectical and theological arguments between Abelard, Heloise and their pious nemesis, Bernard of Clairvaux, a rom-com is exactly what Brenton has produced.
Both Abelard and Heloise are a pair of precocious, constantly questioning firebrands in John Dove's restaging of his original production for English Touring Theatre. It's as if they are living embodiments of the trees of knowledge that flank the action as the couple come together in secret. While the anti-establishment ideas of both are indulged before they meet, their coupling as a pair of pleasure-seeking sensualists who can't keep their hands off each other proves to be an incendiary act too far. Heloise may show a progressive sense of self-determination that looks positively counter-cultural, but in the end cutting the relationship off in its prime is the only option for her and Abelard's enemies.
For all the play's seriousness, there's an irreverent swagger about David Sturzager and Jo Herbert's central performances that carries throughout Brenton's audaciously penned text. Sex, ideas and heretical thought, it seems, are natural bedfellows here. When Heloise hands Bernard a copy of Abelard's auto-biography, published "800 years in the future, in English," the libido-driven dance that follows suggests that the sexual revolution, like the dialectical arguments contained within Abelard's weighty tome, is still very much alive