Although the actors valiantly try to bring humour and youthful charm to the resoundingly dull script, In Extremis: The Story of Abelard and Heloise is a complete mess.
The performance, running just over two and a half hours, is tedious and uninspired.
The illicit love affair of historical figures, Peter Abelard (Bryn Dewar) and his under-age student, Heloise of Argenteuil (Bea Hutcheson) is hardly romantic. The 12th century medieval lovers shunned the Church and tried to bring the philosophical teachings of Aristotle and the likes to the forefront. However, once their love affair is discovered by Heloise’s furious uncle Fulbert (Charles Harries), Heloise is forced to join a convent and become a prioress. Aberlard also joins the church and becomes a monk, but feels the wrath of Fulbert when he is punished for bringing shame onto the family.
The performances are surprisingly amateurish; the actors pace about stage without any guidance, particularly Dewar who flays his arms about and walks around aimlessly while reciting his lines. Hutcheson plays a passionate Heloise well, if not a bit screechy in delivery. Harries, who plays the uncle gone wild with rage, is a good madman but misses the subtlety of a religious clergyman losing his precious niece.
A common problem with the acting is that many of the actors resort to yelling out their lines to convey anger instead of using their bodies to emote. The acting is surprisingly one-note for a production spawned out of the McGill Department of English, Drama and Theatre, paling in comparison to acting I have seen in high school productions.
Granted, the script by Howard Brenton is not an easy one to interest students, or anyone for that matter. In Extremis tries too hard to be funny and romantic while still conveying a philosophy versus religion debate. First performed professionally in 2006, the show rambles on for far too long about the tired argument. Although the debate tries not to be the centre of the show, it ultimately is, sucking out any semblance of an interesting story line.
During the performance I could not stop checking my watch and staring at the man seated in the last row behind me, sound asleep. Clearly I’m not the only one who didn’t enjoy the show.
What is to be commended is the excellent design of the costumes, sets and lighting, done mostly by students, present and former. The costumes, headed by wardrobe manager Catherine Bradley and her team of 10 costume class students, are terrific. Specifically, the costumes of prioresses and monks are outstandingly realistic while the everyday medieval clothing was also exemplary. The lighting was well crafted, particularly in a sex-scene inside a church, where only Abelard and Heloise’s shadows are visible.
This play is certainly unimpressive to say the least, but I expect the next McGill production to improve upon this production. McGill has certainly put on stellar plays in the past; In Extremis is probably just the odd exception.
In Extremis: The Story of Abelard and Heloise plays from Nov. 25 to Nov. 28 at 7:30pm in Mcguill’s Arts Building, Moyse Hall, 853 Sherbrooke Street West.