By Patrick Neylan
As is often the case with serious plays, the interval talk was all about the set. Jan Greenhough’s austere, stuccoed and sensitively lit setting, offset by a stained-glass window, was a perfect metaphor for the heroine: a tiny lantern of colour amid the bleakness of religious zealotry and political manoeuvring.
I wasn’t fully convinced by the script. On the page, Helen Edmundson’s story of Sister Juana, a playwright/poet nun pitted against the church in 17th Century Mexico, comes across as curiously stilted, with the author deliberately adopting the classic Spanish style of lengthy explanatory speeches and grand-standing soliloquies, often directly to the audience. Not a bad thing in itself – Shakespeare wasn’t averse to the odd soliloquy – but I would have preferred to keep the fourth wall intact. One is also left with shallow characters who come across as archetypes rather than people. We accept their worldview as being of its time but, as with Edmundson’s Coram Boy, we don’t really understand them on a human level.
In particular, the transformation of Matt Platt’s Santa Cruz from hero to villain is abrupt and unsatisfying. Having been Juana’s benefactor for many years, he vows to destroy her after a single comment by Sebastiana: a jealous fellow nun who is prone to ecstatic visions and is clearly bonkers. This is a criticism of the script, not Matt’s fine performance, which showed his great versatility when compared with his half-witted bumpkin in The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Sebastiana was played delightfully by Laura Ings Self, who said almost as much with her off-line acting as with her words.
Whatever the flaws of the script, did the director and actors get the most out of it? They largely did. Some uncertainty over lines and especially cues was only a brief distraction at the start, as was the habit of the main performers to wander around the stage when static firmness would have been more appropriate, given certain characters’ unshakable moral certainty. The early discussion between Archbishop Aguiar, Santa Cruz and Bruce Wallace’s Father Antonio looked at times like a dance in a Jane Austen costume drama: pause, walk and speak, pause.
But Paul Ackroyd grew strongly into the part of Aguiar. His early perambulations settled down and his stern self-assurance cast its shadow over the whole play even in the many scenes where he was absent, as debates ranged around his constipated morality. His anachronistic Buddy Holly glasses were a minor costume gripe in what was otherwise a perfectly turned-out cast.
Short scenes compensated for the wordiness by keeping the action clipping along, although the scene changes could have been quicker. Having leading cast members spend so much time on stage moving stools around detracted from their performances. It worked much better when the minor characters were doing the work, with Emma Kerby-Evans keeping up a constant campaign of wordless sniping and bickering first with Jan Greenhough and later Maxine Edwards. These little moments of humour were lovely and kept the audience on side, and Maxine’s portrayal of the slave Juanita grew into one of the more human characterisations.
The other performers acquitted themselves well: Heather Wain as the insecure Mother Superior and Sophie Gissing as the soppy, naïve Angelica in the convent, with Jonathan Evans as Don Hernando, the Don Juan who is Angelica’s undoing. Helen Scott was a radiant Vicereine, gorgeously attired, although Bruce Wallace in a second role as the Viceroy seemed uncharacteristically happy to hide in the shadow of her brilliance and his own hat.
It’s difficult to fully engage with a play when the moral choices are so obvious: one simply cannot sympathise with the Archbishop Aguiar, even if his unyielding orthodoxy is historically accurate. There is only one moment – in his interrogation of Juana – where the audience can grudgingly admit, “He’s got a point.” Meanwhile Megan McGery’s Juana is charming, beautiful and intelligent. Megan plays the role perfectly: you know she can’t win, but in terms of the audience’s affections she can’t lose, taking full advantage of the script to seduce us. That makes it all the more poignant when Aguiar’s “God is not your friend!” hits her in the face with the force of a dungeon door slamming shut.