Preview: Eternal Love, King’s Theatre

Abelard and Heloise, David Sturzaker and Jo Herbert. Pic: Comp
Abelard and Heloise, David Sturzaker and Jo Herbert. Pic: Comp
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IT’S a few years now, since playwright Howard Brenton wrote some of the best episodes of the BBC spy drama Spooks. And you get the impression that he doesn’t miss it too much. After all, Anne Boleyn, his last play to tour to the Capital in 2012, garnered rave reviews and rapturous audience applause.

“The rules of storytelling are the same whatever the medium,” reflects the 71-year-old, when asked his preference, television or stage? “The techniques are very different, but by inclination I am a stage writer, though I loved writing for television.”

It’s the challenge he enjoys. “The stage is a really difficult one. In television you can always cut out of a scene; you can say, ‘This isn’t working so I’ll just take that bit. You can’t do that on stage. You’ve got to be really confident that there is power and dynamism in each scene, so that everything works itself out and shoots on to the next one. Stage is a tougher medium really.”

Brenton’s latest work, Eternal Love, comes to the King’s Theatre next week. It tells the spellbinding tale of Abelard and Heloise, starring David Sturzaker and Jo Herbert. Set in 12th century Paris, where a new spirit of religious enquiry is emerging, Peter Abelard begins a wild affair with his brilliant student Heloise, giving his enemies the perfect pretext to destroy him.

Already on thin ice with the church over his contentious views, when Heloise bears his child out of wedlock, their affair becomes the scandal of the Middle Ages.

Like Anne Boleyn before it, Eternal Love opened at The Globe, in London. Recalling the origins of the piece, originally called In Extremis, Brenton reveals his approach when writing it was anything but conventional.

“I wrote the first draft for American students when I was resident dramatist at the University of California for a semester,” he says.

“It’s a drama school really, the place where Tom Hanks trained, and I thought I’d write the students a play; something about the European mentality in the midst of the Californian sunlight and hedonism, and came up with this story.

“I was almost writing a scene a day. I’d write it in the morning, then rehearse it with the students in the afternoon. Then I’d get up early and write the next scene. It was unnerving. I can’t believe I actually wrote it like that. I did some more work on it when The Globe picked it up, but it didn’t change a lot.

“It’s an extraordinary love story, it’s a very profane, earthly love. A shocker really; a great teacher who falls in love with his student and she falls in love with him... and then there is a catastrophe because of their affair. Then they end up in the church but their love goes on and becomes something completely different. It’s a story of transformation really.

“I suppose I was attracted to it because they were such over-reachers. Two very attractive people who were reckless lovers but also great philosophers.

“I read it many years ago as a student. There was this extraordinary philosophical battle between Abelard and Heloise and their foe Bernard of Clairvaux, who became a saint, and it’s a battle that still goes on in religion between modernisers and traditionalists today.”

If that all sounds a bit heavy, it isn’t. Brenton believes it is an easy play to watch.

“The plays that work at The Globe can be about very serious things but they must be accessible to everyone because they have huge audiences, many of them quite young. So a Globe play has to be funny and serious at the same time, and it must be entertaining,” he explains.

While Brenton himself won’t make it to the Capital on this occasion, he reflects that Edinburgh has played a significant part in his career over the years, not least because of his experiences at the Fringe, many years ago.

“When I was young, I had quite a few plays on at the Fringe,” he says.

“It was part of where I began, bringing shows up to the Festival, to the old Traverse. It was a great place to start.”

Eternal Love, King’s Theatre, Leven Street, Tuesday-Saturday, 7.30pm (matinee 2.30pm), £14-£29.50, 0131-529 600