A woman born with the gift of poetry was, according to Virginia Woolf, until ever so recently, “a woman in strife against herself.” The world did not permit her to pick up a pen. And if she persisted to kick against the way of things, to write despite all the obstacles stacked against her, she was usually met with suspicion, distaste, and ridicule. To stand any hope of living a creative life, a woman needed space, time and money: that elusive room of her own coupled with considerable strength of will.
For Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz, the seventeenth century poet and playwright, her room took the shape of a nun’s cell. For her the convent was both a confining and a freeing place. Though physically caged, living out her life behind gates and bars, she was able to study, to feed her intellect, to achieve a form of independence and amass a significant library, not just texts of theology and devotion, but of the whole world and its workings.
She was well liked at court where her play, House of Desires, was performed and she was a particular favourite of the Vicereine. But though she also had her supporters within the church, she had – inevitably perhaps – her detractors, those who were alarmed by the idea of nun writing secular poetry and works of entertainment, who were wary of the idea of a woman writing in any form. Helen Edmundson’s play for the RSC is alert to the complexities of Sister Juana’s predicament: the divisions between church and court and between Spain and what was then still New Spain, now Mexico. For a long time her creativity was tolerated, encouraged even, but the special status accorded to her sparked disquiet both within the convent and beyond its walls. Eventually she was obliged to halt, to lay down her pen, stem the flow of words and renew her vows.
As Sister Juana, Catherine McCormack is passionate, yet serene. She is a woman driven; writing is part of her nature and to not do so would be to deny some vital aspect of her character. Though McCormack’s portrayal is radiant and intelligent, it is not an unshaded performance: there are un-nun like traces of vanity and pride in her too, a thirst for acclaim. She is most at ease in the company of Catherine Hamilton’s Vicereine and together they convey the intensity of the women’s friendship, their need of each other and understanding of one another as women both isolated by circumstance.
The play’s male characters are more broadly drawn. Geoffrey Beevers is kindly and warm as the full-hearted Father Antonio, a man who despite his affection for Sister Juana is easily cowed and swayed. Raymond Coulthard plays the duplicitous Bishop whose admiration for Sister Juana turns to repulsion when he finds himself becoming attracted to her. Stephen Boxer is suitably stern and threatening as the hair-shirted Spanish Archbishop who views Sister Juana as an affront to his faith and can barely bring himself to look on a woman for fear of being in some way tainted. It is in Boxer’s character that the play’s modern parallels are made most explicit: in any society peopled by authority figures who view women as a source of corruption and contagion, the act of writing becomes a subversive and powerful one.
Nancy Meckler, who previously directed House of Desires during the RSC’s 2004 Spanish Golden Age season, gives the material a solid if overemphatic production. A retractable gate is used to convey a sense of Sister Juana’s cloistered existence, but it also helps to keep her distant. Though never less than compelling, at almost three hours in length the play occasionally sags (a sub plot involving Sister Juana’s niece is rather drawn out), the constant rattling back and forth of the separating gate eventually becomes repetitious and the staging itself is a little flat and unadventurous. The otherwise simple set, dominated by Christ’s looming face, is beautifully lit by Ben Ormerod – the stage suffused with soft golden light, evening sun – but it’s McCormack’s performance that gives this play its heat.