Hamilton Gardens, Camellia Lawn, Gate 2, Hamilton

24/02/2014 - 27/02/2014

Hamilton Gardens Arts Festival 2014

Production Details

A new spirit of philosophy is growing in 12th-century France. At the forefront is the brilliant Peter Abelard, a man of great learning, independence of mind, and sensuality. He starts a war of ideas with the powerful Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, the priest of medieval mysticism and austerity. But when Abelard starts a wild affair with his equally brilliant but disastrously-connected student Heloise, his enemies find just the pretext to destroy him. 

Through the joy and suffering of one of the greatest love stories of the Middle Ages, Howard Brenton’s In Extremis explores the relationships between logic and religion, and faith and love.   

New Zealand Premiere
When:  Monday, 24 February – Thursday, 27 February 2014 @ 7:00pm
Where:  Camellia Garden 
Wet Venue:  Victorian Garden Conservatory
Tickets:  $20 Adult | $15 Concession 
Genre:  Theatre
Duration:  135 including intermission  

Theatre ,

2hrs 15mins

Undeniable passionate love

Review by Jan-Maree Franicevic 25th Feb 2014

Every chair is taken in the Hammond Camellia Garden for opening night of the New Zealand premiere of Howard Brenton’s In Extremis. From the very first lines of the play I am enthralled. 

Not only am I a big fan of any argument involving religion and logic but I am an even bigger fan of a touchingly tragic love story. Here we have both, made all the richer by the fact that this all really happened!  

Peter Abelard (Brendan West) is hailed as the boldest theologian of the 12th Century. He argues against the theories of his own teacher, William of Champeaux (Josh Drummond), tearing away from this school to begin his own. He draws massive crowds hailing the question, “Is Paris the new Jerusalem?” He is upheld by the Catholic Church and is invited by Canon Fulbert (Mark Houlahan) of Notre Dame to act as private teacher to his 17 year old niece Heloise (Ajsha Trebilco).

And so the great love story begins.  Abelard holds court with King Louis VI (Benny Marama). He is lauded all over France and Europe. Just when it seems he can do no wrong, it all blows up in his face. 

Alberic (Dave Taylor) and Lotholf (Mike Taylor) seek to avenge their deposed teacher William, making a pilgrimage to the Monastery of the religious zealot Bernard of Clairveaux (played sensationally well by Henry Ashby). What ensues is a great debate of logic and religion between Bernard and Abelard. 

Alberic and Lotholf proceed to blow the whistle on Abelard and Heloise’s relationship. The Canon is enraged and a pregnant Heloise is smuggled out of Paris to Abelard’s family farm in Brittany. She is unwilling to marry Abelard and incapable of raising their son Astrolabe, a job which falls upon the shoulders of Abelard’s long-suffering sister, Denise (Bronwyn Wilson).

Two years pass and Abelard returns for Heloise. Together they travel to Paris. The Canon’s welcome is not stunning so the two decide there is nothing else for it but to marry, which only serves to bring more heat to an already hotly difficult situation. The pair steal away to the Abbey of Mother Helene (Leanna Ireland) though this is where the great tragedy unfolds.

Abelard is maimed by a lynch mob of his enemies (led by Canon Fulbert), so steals away to become a monk. Heloise reluctantly becomes a nun under Mother Helene (most powerful lines of the night are hers: “Even the memory of love isn’t real. It is just a part of a story. Not life. The time for fucking in trees is over my dear.”) 

Twenty years pass and we meet a much older, calmer Abelard and Heloise. The zealot, Bernard of Clairveaux, has challenged Abelard to another debate at the court of the King. This time Abelard is defeated by his own silence. Acknowledging the Trinity, he dies not long after. 

The play ends with a magnificent discourse between Bernard and Heloise where in a masterstroke she presents Bernard with a copy of Abelard’s autobiography. There is a small titter among the crowd as she places it in his hand and it would be a major spoiler if I were to give you her parting line. 

I am surprised there is no standing ovation tonight for this is without a doubt one of the best shows I have seen at this year’s festival. Perhaps this is because we are all a little frozen to our seats (in these late February nights, I warn you pack a thermos of tea and blanket, and a second blanket to ensure you are warm enough). There are tears in my eyes as I applaud the ensemble, more so as Abelard and Heloise take their bows.

Incredible performances from both Brendan West (Abelard) and Ajsha Trebilco (Heloise) impart an innate sense of their undeniable passionate love for each other. A woman of letters was a rarity in the 12th Century; many would be the man to decry such a woman as vulgar. Back then women were married. They became mothers, cooks, seamstresses, they were not independent, educated ‘free’ thinkers. That we see Abelard fall so haplessly and convincingly for this sensationally played female oddity shows his progressive thinking at its most basic level and is endearing.  

West is remarkable. His debate scenes with Ashby (Bernard of Clairveaux) are sublime. The ease of their dialogue, their interaction, their physicality shows a kind of proficiency I rarely see. These are some of my favourite scenes in the piece. I close my eyes occasionally and feel that when I open them again, magically I will be in 12th Century Paris. Beautiful. 

Henry Ashby’s portrayal of Bernard is so strong that he effortlessly steals the show every time he walks into a scene. He has a certain stillness and assurance which radiates into the audience and leaves us with an enduring memory of him as he walks out again. A remarkable young actor, I feel sure he is destined for good things. 

If I am honest, the entire casting is magical. Mark Houlahan’s portrayal of Canon Fulbert is so adept that I could almost say he was destined to play the part. I must commend the six cast members (Benny Marama, Leanne Ireland, Dave Taylor, Josh Drummond, Emma Koretz and Jackie Dawson) who have just the day prior wound up a week long season of The Comedy of Errors. No mean feat to flick-flack from Shakespeare almost seamlessly into the performing this intricate story of medieval religion and romance.

Director Louise Blackstock has every reason to be proud of her work here. If for nothing else but that at all times her cast can be heard (a rarity in the gardens this year!). It is never easy to find one’s own unique way around a play that has its roots set firmly in history. All too easy for a less disciplined director to let folly get in the way of telling a true story but here I feel the facts have been rigorously stuck to. Such a long and lofty piece of theatre (it is every minute of the 135 minute running time stated in the programme, not including the 15 minute intermission) could easily become annoying if not kept as tight and focussed as this is.

And here I think I have run out of words. This is such a great piece of theatre, it must be seen to be believed. Bravo!

NOTE: Sadly I do have a pre-show grumble. I was unimpressed with how the audience was treated as we waited to be admitted into the garden last night. It’s not cool to be barked at several times to step away from the rose archway entrance to the garden in order to let the cast and props through. This happened fifteen minutes before show time. I am disappointed. I walked through the Camellia garden at 5.30pm last night and there was not a person nor prop to be seen. Maybe it was first night flapping but I would have thought it far more sensible to pack into the garden (this is the only show staged in the space this week) with plenty of time remaining for audience to be admitted. Also I must wonder why, as the actors take their starting positions, they don’t traverse the lawn behind us instead of right in front of us.


Louise Blackstock February 25th, 2014

Hi Jan,

Thanks for your review, it is very appreciated. I'm so glad you enjoyed the show.
I must apologise for the person who snapped at you, that was a very uncool moment on their part, as it was not the audience's fault that there was a set-up issue that evening! She had no right to be rude. So I'm very sorry for that, I hope it didn't dampen the evening for you. Thank you so much for coming!

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