The Spanish were by that time well established in a New World they sought to conquer and to proselytise.
Juana de Asbaje y Ramirez was born to unmarried Spanish immigrant parents, and her remarkable intellect soon became apparent. She studied, read, taught, wrote essays, plays and books, composed music and became a darling of the court.
But she also craved the peace of the holy life, and entered a convent. Her confessor, and the ambitious Bishop of Puebla, were men who appreciated the need for accommodations between the sophistication of the court, the acseticism of the church and the conflicting religions of the people of Mexico.
All that was thrown off balance by the arrival of a new archbishop, who was immediately at odds with the Viceroy and his court and the “lax” practices to which the church had turned conveniently blind eyes.
He banned poetry, plays and all extravagant demonstrations, making it clear that in his new Mexico, women had no place in intellectual, political or spiritual life. Sister Juana’s choice was an inquisitionary court (and possible burning for heresy) or a renunciation of all her work and a dedication to prayer, fasting and charitable works.
Edmundson’s play, which includes real and imagined characters, is directed with subtle power by BOVTS artistic director Jenny Stephens, and Elizabeth Rose’s deceptively simple set takes the studio audience into the quiet of the convent and the tumult of intellectual passion.
Exceptional singing from the 12-strong cast brings the music of the Mexican baroque to a new audience in a way that would not shame specialist early music ensembles.
Utilising the conventions of theatre of the Spanish Golden Age, the playwright weaves a thriller full of jealousy, plotting, ambition, cruelty, fear and hope, and the overriding influence is the goodness of Sister Juana.
It is performed by one of the theatre school’s most gifted groups of graduating actors in recent years. Look out especially for Ryan McKen, whose calm and wise Father Antonio is matched by Dominic Allen’s smiling, scheming Santa Cruz, and Joel Macey’s bloodless radical fanatic archbishop.
Martha Seignior’s vibrant Angelica, torn between vocation and romantic love, and Tilly Steele’s faithful Juanita are both memorable performances.
Erin Doherty is simply stunning as Sister Juana, bringing a blazing intensity to her passion for learning and a shining goodness to this extraordinary woman.
The Heresy of Love will be performed at Shakespeare’s Globe this summer, but if you possibly can, go and see it in Bristol before the end of the run on 14th March. You won’t regret it.
Photograph by Graham Burke