IN 1683, a Mexican nun wrote a subversive, cross-dressing farce, The House of Desires. It was acclaimed in its time and, as evidenced by a Royal Shakespeare Company production ten years ago, can still reduce an audience to hilarity.
Sister (Sor) Juana Inés de la Cruz also had the most incisive theological brain of her day. In her convent, she had a huge, diverse library. She wrote poems with philosophical and scientific insight, and defended the rights of indigenous Mexicans.
How do you imagine the church authorities reacted to a woman with a blazing intellect, charismatic charm, and a devout faith? Here’s a clue: her story doesn’t end with her being made a bishop.
It is, however, the attention being paid to the first female bishops of the Church of England which makes the revival of Helen Edmundson’s play The Heresy of Love so timely. It joins a series of plays this summer in which Christian characters are given rounded, believable portraits as warm and contradictory people longing to be godly.
In Steve Waters’s Temple,the Dean of St Paul’s agonises over his response to the Occupy movement. In Carol Ann Duffy’s adaptation of Everyman, a young man facing death searches for a saviour. The exception has been the lamentable Luna Gale by the American Rebecca Gilman, in which having a Christian faith is merely shorthand for a propensity to sexual abuse.
Naomi Frederick gives a superb performance as Sister Juana, conveying intelligence and inner beauty with a commanding stillness. Her undoing is the result of the conflicted motives of those around her: an envious nun who can’t resist the chance to be noticed (Rhiannon Oliver), a bishop whose emotional and career disappointments blunt his judgement (Anthony Howell), and a confessor torn between recognising genius and knowing that compromise could avert a tragedy (Patrick Driver). But a typically enthusiastic audience at the Globe responded most vocally to a splendidly vigorous turn by Sophia Nomvete as Juana’s slave Juanita. Directed by John Dove on Michael Taylor’s set of black railings and hundreds of books, she provides the broad humour and humanity that is needed to fill the roofless theatre.
Sister Juana stops writing and throws herself on God’s mercy. Books are burnt. The Inquisition suppresses the women. The nuns open their hearts as plague takes hold. But Sister Juana takes up her pen just once more, and it is what she writes on that occasion that makes tears inevitable.
Juana Inés de la Cruz appears on Mexican banknotes. The Spanish equivalent of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction is named in her honour. We ought to know more about her. This highly entertaining play is a good place to start.
The Heresy of Love continues in repertory at Shakespeare’s Globe, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, London SE1, until 5 September. Tickets from www.shakespearesglobe.com; or phone 020 7401 9919.