Like St. Joan before her, Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz was a woman silenced. A compulsive writer and fiercely intelligent theological scholar, she invited commissions for poetry and plays from across New Spain – the colonial Mexico of the 1600s.
Now regarded as a playwright of the Spanish Golden Age, in her own time she fought censorship and prejudice, taking on the patriarchy of the church to have her works performed, and Helen Edmundson’s play charts de la Cruz’s martyrdom in full voice.
Encouraged by the patronage of the Viceroy, Juana’s works are celebrated and well attended until a new Archbishop is delivered from Madrid.
With his mind similarly set on reform, the Archbishop here is almost an inverted Pope Francis. Sent from Europe to South America to impose tighter regulations on women, entertainment and civil liberties, he is determined to drag this flock kicking and screaming to their salvation if he has to.
Phil Whitchurch as the Archbishop fizzes with impatience and rising anger, unable even to look at Juana, he charges bull-like at the red rag of liberalism. Were he to stop and engage he might experience the human connection which so frightens him, and call his sweeping bans into question.
And there is a lot to be tempted by. Sex rages beneath the surface of almost every relationship. Despite her devotions, the first person to kneel and kiss the hand of any bishop is Juana herself, with deliberate sensuality. Inevitably the suspicions of the audience are roused. Standing mere feet away in the yard of the Globe Theatre, they too can no doubt smell the perfume that Juana anoints her body with, the perfume that draws Bishop Santa Cruz so close to ruin.
That he derives some pleasure in these moments of closeness to Juana leads Santa Cruz to engineer her downfall, tricking her into publishing her most volatile treatise.
The character of Juana can occasionally come across as simpering and uptight but Naomi Frederick takes the opportunities she is given to drop her voice into the register of cynicism. Juana’s got previous. She used to be a lady, and these glimmers that Frederick offers us, reveal a self-knowledge and maturity that others in the church so patently lack.
In Edmundson’s play the clergy is in conflict everywhere through the temptation of personal pleasure versus service to God. This is the pulse which underpins everything, the danger of a kiss, a touch, even a thought is palpable. Indeed, having given birth to her play, Juana cannot watch it stating, “A mother shouldn’t sit and watch beside her daughter’s nuptial bed.”
The claustrophobia and isolation of the cloister is difficult to translate to the wide, open wooden-O but a moveable prison gate highlights the nuns’ detachment effectively enough. The more private moments taking place on a lonely promontory which extends out into the yard.
The subplot of Juana’s niece courting the affections of a courtier adds an interesting counterpoint to the freedoms that Juana sacrifices so much for. Sweet and naïve and not yet called into the nunnery, Angelica cannot be more than 12 or 13 years old, but Don Hernando does not see that an obstacle. The urgency of Gary Shelford’s swashbuckling suitor to seal the deal can’t help but arouse the audience’s distaste.