of a play by Tilo Ulbricht
‘Heresy’ directed by Daniel Zappi and Rachael Maya
Inspired by Dostoevsky’s ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ from ‘The Brother’s Karamazov’, the play ‘Heresy’ is set in early 16th Century Spain. The play supposes that the Cathars were not all exterminated by the Crusade and Inquisition in the 12th and 13th century, but survived in Spain. How to convincingly portray a sense of the spirituality of this relatively little known group of ‘heretics’? Evidently the movement involved its adherents in an inner struggle to return to the ardent faith and truly spiritual calling manifest in early Christianity – including, in its leaders, the renunciation of procreation. They challenged the principle of the Roman Catholic church that only through adherence to its own rule and regulations could the souls of the faithful be saved. In the play this conflict is skilfully animated through the complexity of relationships between the main characters and weight is given to both sides of the argument.
It is a theme which still has relevance in our contemporary world, riven by wars waged between followers of doggedly held but conflicting belief systems and the attempt to impose by force, so antagonistic to true spirituality, a supposed order in society and conformity of ideas.
Moved to the cramped space of Studio 4 at the Arcola Theatre on a hot and humid Sunday evening, the rehearsed reading of the play was sold out. It came to life particularly in the very watchable performance of the beautiful Rachael Maya. As Rosario she reminds Carlos, her former lover of the strong feelings she had for him when they first met and her bewilderment at his disappearance. The danger of the Inquisition was such that he could not tell her he had gone to Aragon and joined the Cathars. While she suffered, thwarted in her instinct for motherhood and a domestic life with the man she loved, he was rendered doubly an outcast from society, first by his noble but illegitimate birth and then by his allegiance to a secret spiritual path.
We discover that their suffering is paralleled by that of the Inquisitor-General himself, as we learn in a strong dialogue between Don Domingo and his mother, powerfully played by Andrew McDonald and Ellen Sheean. Reluctantly he reveals that he too had been in love with Rosario, though too shy ever to have declared it. Another ‘outsider’, he turned instead to join the Dominicans.
In the strong climax to the play, the Inquisitor-General finds himself condemning to torture and death those who are close to him; even the visiting Stranger, perhaps Jesus himself, is not exempt, and all for the sake of what he believes to be the greater good. On this moving, painful decision and crisis of conscience, the play ends, leaving the audience in a state of shock from which it is hard to return to clapping a fine and thought-provoking performance carried out under difficult conditions.
There is no doubt that the play deserves to be seen on a more spacious stage and with sets that fittingly reflect the Spanish ambiance as the playwright has visualised it, sketched in at this reading by brief directions at the start of each scene. This also raises the question of how the play might work in a radio version- could it be possible without losing too much of the telling background detail which brings the characters to life?
Comment on the Review
At first I found this an odd play, characters reminiscing about events long, long before, and anyway, surely there weren’t any Cathars in Spain in the 16th century? But I did realise, in time fortunately, that that was just an outer framework for the depiction of an inner conflict. How to reconcile the demands of outer life with the longing to discover the truth? The extraordinary experience of what we call love, and the strange call inside- only heard sometimes- to be?
Yet there is only one life. Do I experience it, feel it, to be one? The outer circumstances were very, very different 500 years ago (we can hardly imagine them) yet life puts us in front of the same, apparently conflicting demands which so deeply disturb Carlos and Domingo in this play. They find themselves divided.
Reading the above review I feel some other performances should be mentioned. Don Felipe, the wise old Cathar with a mysterious past (a good portrait by Roger Braban), Don Pedro (Marc Forde); the disciples Judas and Thomas (Andre Refig and Steve Jesson), small but significant parts because of who they are- men of quality. Finally, the gaoler (Bernard O’Sullivan) who seems to be just a comic figure put in for light relief but who, moved by the dramatic conclusion in which he finds himself a participant, shows that there is a sensitive side to his nature. Perhaps we, too, can open to compassion.
Usually, a reviewer of a play is supposed to tell you whether it’s good or bad, what did or didn’t ‘work’, what he did or didn’t like. It was only in the hours and days after I attended the rehearsed reading of Heresy, a new play by Tilo Ulbricht, that the various recollections of fragments of dialogue, themes and ideas began to coalesce inside me, to group themselves together and to evoke a response. So this is a piece which doesn’t just aim to entertain or even to inform, but to awaken something inside. That is how it ‘works’.
Taking its cue from the story of The Grand Inquisitor in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, the play’s premise unites two widely separated historical events: the extermination of the Cathars by the Albigensian Crusade of the 13th century and persecution of Muslims and Jews by the Spanish Inquisition nearly three hundred years later. We are invited to imagine that some Cathars escaped the final slaughter and made their way across the Pyrenees to Aragon, where their descendants continue to nurture the Cathar teaching. Now, three centuries later, they are threatened by the Inquisition in the person of the Grand Inquisitor of Dostoyevsky’s story – a loyal servant of the Church and of his Dominican order, who, by his own standards, is a man of integrity and even an idealist.
It was his namesake and the founder of his order, St Domingo de Guzman, who first preached the crusade against the Cathars. No mere fanatic, St Domingo had first tried winning the Cathars over in theological debate before concluding that, for the sake of some supposed greater good, for the unity of Christendom and the preservation of the ‘true faith’, the entire community should be subjected to total war.
It is a dense piece, with many related themes, which are interwoven so as to allow them to be felt inwardly, rather than just thought about. It left me with an impression of what it means for someone to try sincerely to follow some kind of tradition, to seek and question with the help of others. As one of the characters says, Is there such a thing as a true teaching? The play makes no attempt to impose answers on the audience, or even to pose tidy questions. The questions are there in the piece itself – they are its raw material.
The dense interweaving of ideas is mirrored by the interwoven relationships between the characters, which are gradually revealed as the play unfolds. Nevertheless, this, combined with the historical subject matter, poses a practical problem for the writer and the cast. A lot of information needs to be supplied to the audience in the opening scenes for them to be able to follow the developments as the play reaches its climax. This challenge is made more demanding still by the fact that all the characters respond to each other and to their own circumstances like individual human beings, rather than following the comic-book conventions of melodrama. The play handles this problem deftly, but it still requires an effort of attention from the audience.
The performance I attended was of a rehearsed reading, without scenery or props, although stage directions were read out. Although the play relies heavily on character and dialogue, with relatively little physical action, it was nevertheless evident that those few stage directions are very important. I think a full staging could have a powerful effect on an audience, and I hope that one can be organised.
A note from the playwright
Since I was sixteen, I have been trying to be a poet, and in recent years I have also attempted to recreate many of Rilke’s poems in English. Poetry (as distinct from verse) is the distillation of intense personal experience; it is highly condensed.
The novel gives one the space to explore the development of characters over their lives; in a play or film the drama between the characters and their reaction to external events is concentrated in time, and truth is revealed.
I value these different forms when I feel that the author is sharing what he has found to be most true in himself, and that he loves his characters- their joys and sorrows are part of his life; he does not judge them.