Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz (Erin Doherty) is not like other nuns. Aside from being a devoted and patient sister of her order, she is also a poet and a playwright and an avid collector of books. To begin with this places her in great favour of the Spanish Court in Mexico and they commission her to pen well-received plays and poetry. However, her unorthodox position in society is precariously positioned and, almost inevitably, the arrival of a new Archbishop (Joel Macey) in the New World and other’s jealousies lead to her persecution and tragic death.
Above is a fairly brief synopsis of The Hersey of Love by Helen Edmundson and performed by the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School from 6th – 14th March at the Bristol Old Vic. It is similar to the blurb you could find in the play’s programme notes or on their website. It tells the reader the basic information they might need to know in order to choose to see the play and to understand its central plot.
What it does not tell the reader is all those things the play is fundamentally about, the thoughts and emotions watching a piece of theatre inspires in the viewer. And of course it cannot, because these aspects of a play are always steadfastly subjective on the part of audience members. If you watch it as a Mexican native, you may well be prompted to think different thoughts to those who are watching it having never visited South America or set foot in a Catholic church. The timing, for instance, of a performance has its effect on reception and The Hersey of Love, being staged on Friday 6th March, was positioned adeptly in the week between World Book Day and International Women’s Day.
This was significant because in many ways the play could be seen as the missing link between the two. Sister Juana’s dissidence, her left field approach to being a woman and a nun, is expressed through choosing to read and write. Her little convent cell is lined with books and she is proud of her library that is linked only to the word ‘Amazon’ through geographical closeness, not as a means to easily procuring volumes. Her books are sent to her from across the world and educate her on astronomy, politics and science. And this causes concern, for what could a bride of Jesus want with knowing how the planets move? She claims it is to better know the creation of God, but others are less certain.
For it is not just a question of how these books chafe with theological doctrine, it is the mere fact that Sister Juana – as a woman, as much as being a nun – owns them and reads them and understands them and cherishes them. It is that she is able to get her pleasures and her knowledge in her own private way.
The acts of reading and of writing are ones we claim to encourage in our children. In fact, much time and money is spent on the ‘problem’ of children having bad literacy rates, of changing their spellings according to how words are typed on an iPhone. If only children would stop hanging out on street corners and come inside to read Enid Blyton, then the holes in society would be neatly stitched up. This is, in part, why J.K. Rowling is considered such a modern day saint, because she managed to get kids to do the unthinkable and actually enjoy reading books. But against this backdrop of apparent apathy towards deciphering the code of little shapes on a page, there will always be the group of people, young and old, for whom there is nothing in the world that makes more sense than dissolving into a book or writing, writing, writing.
As one of these people, I remember vividly the suspicion this incurred as a child. The uncomfortableness that it still invokes amongst the uninitiated who cannot imagine anything worse that spending ‘leisure time’ typing at a computer. In contrast to the apparent desire we have for children to come indoors and learn vocab, my own desire to sit every day after school with a pile of library books and a pile of biscuits was not something that won me either plaudits or – let’s face it – friends. And I see this even now. Girls who would rather spend time on their own reading are viewed as a cause for concern, worrying recluses who need to be encouraged out of their comfort-zones and made to do – shudder – sports.
Why? Not, as many will claim, because we are as worried about child obesity rates as we are about literacy ones (and, OK, the pile of biscuits was probably surplus to requirements) but because the image of a highly autonomous female child deeply unsettles us. To an extent the same image of the boy child sat with encyclopaedias and novels is also unsettling – why doesn’t he go play football? – but the image of the girl child is perhaps even more so. Boy or girl we are suspicious of intellect, scared of people knowing things we do not, concerned that anyone could get all their contentment from words and ideas and theories – abstract things we cannot place a price on.
So why is this intensified when the reader is female? Are we not too post-modern, post-sexist, post-feminist for differences to exist? At the root of the trouble with girls and women reading is the fear of being unable to control what they do with those words. Control, maybe, the books they read – make sure there is no sex until a certain age or no science for good little nuns – but you cannot control what happens once the words are in their heads. What they will do with all this knowledge that you know you do not have, but they do. They may react in wildly unpredictable ways, rise up and start revolutions or type feminist diatribes on a Sunday morning. Or they may just sit quietly, watching you, seeing through you – making you know that they know all this is bullshit.
The Bishop Santa Cruz (Dominic Allen) visits the convent and refers to Sister Juana’s cell as her ‘Salon of Subversion’. In his religious world, obsessed by sin and visions of Satan, you would be surprised that a small, circular room lined with books and a desk could warrant such a fabulous title. A ‘Salon of Subversion’ might be a more fitting title for a decadent French boudoir filled with the stench of absinthe fumes and the voices of Romantic poets, not an austere bunker which shares its name with the rooms of a prison. But Sister Juana is much more subversive than she would be were she drunk or sexy or even dressed in men’s clothes. All of those things could be easily dismissed by others as theatricality or vices. Sister Juana’s desire for knowledge is worse because it causes others to look stupid when they have a problem with it. Sister Juana, like all women with books, is a threat. They are afraid of her understanding the world because once she does she will see within it the hypocrisy, the greed, the boredom of regular life that They need her – us, men or women – not to see and to therefore help sustain. However controlled her surroundings, and the convent epitomises this, they cannot tamper with her intellectual freedom and thus Sister Juana must be destroyed.
At a little under three hours, this play did feel slightly on the long side. However, it is a highly ambitious production with a beautiful stage setting and gorgeous costumes. As a means of updating productions and, indeed, probably for cost reasons, many small productions favour modern apparel over historically correct costumes. It is therefore a great treat to see a production in which so much thought and care had gone into manufacturing the cast’s clothing. Erin Doherty played Sister Juana with the correct amount of understatement, making her a highly likable character in wonderfully earthy opposition to the leather-gloved sadomasochism of Joel Macey’s Archibishop Aguiar Y Seijas. The success of this significant undertaking promises much for the young cast members and the theatre school in future years.