Review: In Extremis

Image credit: Grainne Dromgoole

With Grainne Dromgoole’s production of In Extremis in the Fellows Garden of Jesus College, a remarkable number of good ideas come together to form a truly excellent whole. The play is set in 12th-century France, and its landscapes of fields, of dances at court, and monasteries buried deep in the forest are effortlessly suggested by the setting – to such an extent that the world of the play seems to take over ours. And the chilling wind (I seriously advise against going in a T-shirt like I did) echoes the wind of romance and of philosophical uprising which blows through the action of the play.

The script by Howard Brenton (who I hear was in the audience on opening night) stands out from the many rewritings of the love story between the philosopher Peter Abelard and his student Héloïse by putting philosophy, rather than love, at the forefront. Thankfully, dialectical argument is not allowed to fully dominate the stage, as Dromgoole has chosen to adopt an unambiguously comic tone. This decision pays off brilliantly. The countless comic details she adds to every scene come alive in the hands of a flawless ensemble cast the likes of which are rarely seen in student theatre, and make for a truly jubilant first half.

Its highlights are too numerous to list. Jasper Vardag-Hunter provides nothing short of an immaculate comic turn as Louis VI. And the entrance of the play’s antagonist, Bernard of Clairvaux, is especially memorable. Louis Elton makes the daring choice of portraying Bernard as a cackling villain straight out of a comic book, but among a supporting cast of caricatures, he fits in perfectly.

The problem with the direction chosen by Dromgoole is that it casts Abelard in the role of the straight-man, effectively smoothing out the more unpleasant aspects of the historical figure to make him more sympathetic. While Dan Blick’s solid performance certainly succeeds in making the character likeable, Abelard becomes somewhat boring in the process.

This slight weakness of the protagonist is thrown into relief by the strength of his female co-star. Where Abelard’s intelligence is one of affable generosity, Héloïse’s sparkles with provocative energy. Laura Cameron is a fantastic tragic heroine; her performance is so subtle in its many successes that it goes far beyond the effort the script puts into making Héloïse the men’s intellectual equal, and overshadows them completely.

Benton’s play, after the climactic castration of Abelard (a nail-bitingly gruesome scene in this production), loses steam somewhat, and this is accentuated after the lightness of the first half. However, the brilliance of the cast is enough to maintain our interest through to the end. Elton in particular shines in the final scenes, displaying extraordinary range as his character gains an almost Dewaere-like inscrutability.

It is also in these last moments that the full ingenuity of Jeffrey Chu’s set design comes to light. Night falls as the tone of the play darkens, and Mathilde Morel’s fantastic lighting casts shadows on the actors’ faces during their final confrontations. The sense is that of a cast and creative team of outstanding ingenuity, fully utilising the potential of Cambridge’s atmosphere.


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