Shortly after two 12th century monks begin preaching to a poor prostitute in In Extremis: The Story of Abelard & Heloise, she quickly retorts, “Is this religious stuff? I don’t want anything to do with religious stuff.” I feel you, sister. After an hour of debates about logic, religion, humanism, fundamentalism, faith, and power, I was ready to throw in the towel. By the end of the play, however, I realized what I’d misunderstood all along: this isn’t a love story about Abelard and Heloise, nor is it even a theological and philosophical debate, but rather a reflection of what it is to be a human with undying beliefs, in the Middle Ages as well as today.
In Extremis, the McGill drama and theatre program’s latest production, tells the story of “star-crossed lovers” Abelard and Heloise. These two intellectuals’ romantic entanglement has become a famous part of French folklore, earning frequent comparisons to Romeo and Juliet. But for those true romantics out there, let me be blunt: this is hardly a love story that will leave you in tears. Rather than writing each other poetry, or finding new boundaries for their love to break, the couple frolics lustfully through their patriarchal, religious community. Indeed, Abelard and Heloise’s story can be better read as the account of two individuals – Abelard’s striving for philosophical and intellectual understanding, and Heloise’s desire for a feminist right to education and matrimonial freedom – than as a tale of two lovers.
Thick as In Extremis is with historical, philosophical, and theological discussions, however, the play adheres to high production values. The rather dense story is tempered by the life and energy that the gifted cast brings to the work. Director Sean Carney, associate professor of drama and theatre at McGill, rightfully puts the spotlight on McGill’s young talent, highlighting the importance of a youthful cast to a play such as this one. Regrettably, there is not a great deal of chemistry between the characters – especially Bryn Dewar and Bea Hutcheson, who play the two lovers. But every member of the cast left me with some sort of lasting impression, a directorial feat for which both Carney and actors should be applauded. Praise should also be directed toward wardrobe manager Catherine Bradley, whose use of costumes manages to create a truly believable period piece, where monks, kings, and peasants wander on and off stage as though it really were 12th century Paris.
In short, In Extremis succeeds, but its relatively heady subject matter isn’t likely to draw in a large audience. Though not altogether entertaining, the play has unquestionable merit in its ability to provoke thought in its audience, and raises enough questions about the relationship between logic and faith to cause a worthwhile bar fight between a few passionate philosophy students any day.