By John Whiting Based on a book by Aldous Huxley Directed by Nick Mouton Presented by Sedos at the Bridewell Theatre on 18 March 2015
Father Urbain Grandier is a young, educated, charming priest. People are drawn from around the country to the small city of Loudun in France to hear him speak. His reputation leads to him being offered the position of head priest at St Ursula’s Convent, which he turns down. The convent’s prioress takes umbrage to this, so she avenges herself by claiming possession by devils whom were set upon her by Grandier. The hysteria becomes widespread giving Grandier’s enemies the opportunity to make an example of him by putting him to trial for consorting with the Devil. “The assertion of self is the ascendancy of the Devil.”
Commissioned by Sir Peter Hall for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the play is based on Aldous Huxley’s book The Devils of Loudun that centres on the real circumstances that befell Father Grandier. It was famously re-imagined by Ken Russell in the cult movie The Devils starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave.
Swirling smoke and a church organ establish an ominous mood, and the set design creates a sacred space reminiscent of a church, but which is flexible to double up as several other locations. Against this gothic atmosphere, the opening, and beautifully sung, plainchant Ubi Caritas (Where charity and love are, God is there) provides another texture in this complex and fascinating drama. And then we notice a hooded man left dangling in the public square after being hanged for stealing. As shocking is the sight of the citizens of Loudun going about their daily business without batting an eyelid. In their modern dress, they look just like us. The priests and nuns, in their cassocks and wimples and whatnot, look like they always have down the ages, but even these men and women of God are as habituated to capital punishment as those to whom they are supposedly providing moral guidance.
Adam and Mannoury, the town surgeon and chemist, do take an interest in the dead young man (he was 18 years old), from a purely scientific point of view. They purchase the criminal’s head, which they carry about in a bucket and then dissect. It’s disconcerting, and not just because of the obvious gory reason: we usually don’t treat other people as objects, as a means to an end, and while this corpse is no longer a person, it was one recently.
D’Armagnac and De Cerisay count themselves lucky, in so small a town, to have “a caretaker of souls” as charismatic as Father Urbain Grandier, who’s already made a big impression. His congregation aren’t used to hearing politics and wit coming from the pulpit. Grandier doesn’t just hob-nob with the well-to-do — he’s a genuine man of the people, chatting with the Sewerwoman (how many hands shot up when this part came up?). Sorcha Boyce actually creates a wonderful character, as witty and intelligent as Hamlet’s gravedigger but with more scope to observe the goings-on within the town, and with privileged access to Grandier’s inner thoughts. She articulates the miserable Christian philosophy that individual humans are like drains, sluicing sin every minute of the day, and that women are the worst of the worst:
I’m a woman, a dirty sinful woman.
So, it’s entirely appropriate that she spends her days in the town’s sewers (a not too subtle metaphor for the town’s moral life).
Sam Pearce is the young, handsome Father Grandier who is soon attracting the attention of lonely widows and amorous virgins, as well as the humpback prioress, Sister Jeanne. D’Armagnac had watched Grandier walking through the town:
He fondled a rose as if it was the secret part of a woman.
Grandier, like many preachers, has a lot to say about love, but since he’s a libertine priest his “acts of love” tend to be of the more carnal kind. He comforts the widow, and ends by kissing her. She moans:
You possess me.
Grandier turns out to be a predatory philanderer, whose priesthood both signals his unmarried status and disguises his real intentions. He’s more interested in the widows and virgins than in taking up Sister Jeanne’s offer to be director of her convent. Although that would give him access to a large number of young women, he probably reckons his charms would not be enough to break through to their secret places.
Meanwhile, Adam and Mannoury are busy with the head, excited that they are holding “the residence of reason” and that the scalpel might discover the particle of the brain that is the seat of reason. This philosophical mistake is still being made by neuroscientists today, not because their materialism is unfounded (the brain really is where our thinking and feeling take place — there is no immaterial soul) but because such integrated functions are not likely to be localized in this way and because a neural description is never going to amount to the kind of explanation we’re seeking. Grandier yawns as he listens to the two men, and can’t get away quickly enough. Like most religious people, he’s happy to take the benefits of progress in science (the elimination of infectious diseases such as polio and smallpox) but scornful of the “arrogance” of scientists who claim to have discovered anything really important about the cosmos.
Bishop De La Rochepozay is the one who insists that “the assertion of the self is the ascendancy of the devil” and who’s had it in for Grandier ever since he caught a whiff of woman on the priest’s handkerchief. Simon Hill’s bishop – slumped in a wheelchair, needing an oxygen mask after every other line as he reaches an emotional climax – is a brilliant roll-on part, Hill creating a convincing and forceful personality with an economy of technique.
Father Barre is an enthusiastic exorcist who delights in describing one of his exorcisms. A cow gatecrashed a wedding he was conducting, and he persuaded the devil to jump from the cow into the bride’s mother-in-law:That couple will never forget their wedding day.
The public prosecutor is keen to have the cultured Grandier’s opinion of her poems. He begins:
Your creations –
He pauses to take in the gorgeous sight of her daughter, Phillipe, standing coyly to one side. He heartily agrees to her mother’s suggestion that “she should be instructed” — she’s thinking of Latin, while he has other lessons in mind. The mother is oblivious to the priest’s lascivious interest, so smitten is she with the charming man. But the double act of Adam and Mannoury are more observant:The man is a machine!They are noting down his gallivanting, and would no doubt quote from the James Brown song Sex Machine if they could.
Phillipe is melting in Grandier’s presence, feeling “forces inside” and confessing “inclinations towards sin” — great news for Grandier, who’s on hand to meet her halfway. She rationalizes that these forces must be understood if they are to be resisted. In another context, he explains his support of the town’s campaign to keep their defensive walls:
Conflict attracts me, resistance compels me.
Phillipe’s resistance certainly compels him, and he finally strikes gold when she next confesses:
I’ve had unclean thoughts. I wish to be touched.
De La Rochepozay doesn’t seem too bothered by Grandier’s interest in “lonely widows and amorous virgins” (that’s par for the pastoral course) but he is exercised by the protection afforded the priest by D’Armagnac and De Cerisay. Still, fornication is one way he can destroy Grandier, and while he is loathe to credit Adam and Mannoury with the snooping information they’ve brought him about Grandier’s activities he will still make use of it.
Rowena Turner is compelling as Sister Jeanne, who by now ought to be used to rejection (God has been ignoring her prayers for years, refusing to heal her hump). Being spurned by Grandier, however, seems to be the final straw. Turner creates the powder keg psychology of a character hemmed in on all sides by doctrine and the walls of the convent. She has a febrile imagination, and pictures Grandier’s lovemaking:
He takes up the shudder of her body.
She can almost smell the rank sweat of their bed, and soon a critical mass is reached within her mind and she claims she has had “visions of a diabolical nature” and that she has been possessed (in the spiritual sense) by Grandier, switching voices as the devil tightens his grip.
Towering over her is Father Barre, who is not one of the sceptics suggesting she may be playacting (no one dares deny the reality of the devil). He can’t wait to get started on the prioress and her writhing nuns (Michael Mayne’s magnificent booming voice comes in handy when confronting these raving women). He asks:
Are you there?
He’s not referring to Sister Jeanne, but to the devil supposedly inside, and who has taken control of her body:
How did you gain entry to this woman?
Barre demands the name of the fiend who is possessing her, and she names Grandier. He intones Latin in an attempt to exorcize the devil, but it turns out the devil is a heathen and doesn’t understand Latin. In the end, the fiend must be forced from her, and she is dragged screaming along with Adam and Mannoury, who are wielding some fiercesome-looking forceps and demonstrating an unhealthy interest in their presumably gynaecological operation. Turner gets to do some fantastic offstage screaming, within a few feet of where we were sitting.
The following piece by Sarah Button (Experience: pregnancy sickness nearly killed me) is an example of a very different kind of possession:
One week, I was unable to keep anything down for five consecutive days, and one day I was sick 50 times and bringing up blood. It was as if someone had taken over my body. I couldn’t imagine ever feeling normal again.
There is no suggestion that either Sister Jeanne or any of her nuns have been impregnated: their experience of ceding control of their bodies to an external agent is explicable in sociocognitive terms (see Seriously Possessed). At the time, of course, it had to be the devil’s doing, and this hypothesis is confirmed as the “devil” speaks:
God fled in horror… we celebrated his departure… God is dead.
Phillipe has some news for Grandier:
The first thing Grandier says is:
So it ends.
He has been pursuing a typical short-term mating strategy, securing sexual access with no intention of providing long-term commitment:
How can I help you?
It’s a question Phillipe should have asked herself before having sex with him, as this passage from Buss (2008:107) makes clear:
Women, like weaverbirds, also prefer males with “nests” of various kinds. Consider one of the problems that women in evolutionary history had to face: selecting a man who would be willing to commit to a long-term relationship. A woman in our evolutionary past who chose to mate with a man who was flighty, impulsive, philandering, or unable to sustain relationships found herself raising her children alone and without benefit of the resources, aid, and protection that a more dependable mate might have offered. A woman who preferred to mate with a reliable man who was willing to commit to her presumably would have had children who survived, thrived, and multiplied. Over thousands of generations a preference for men who showed signs of being willing and able to commit evolved in women, just as preferences for mates with adequate nests evolved in weaverbirds. This preference solved key reproductive problems, just as food preferences solved key survival problems.
This is a world where everyone believes in the possibility of diabolical possession – the only question being, whether or not any particular case is genuine? Father Barre has no time for such scepticism:
You can’t have reasonable doubt where sin is concerned. … God works behind a curtain of mystery.
There certainly seems to be a lot of sin around, as the three nuns are now writing around on the floor, with Sister Jeanne out front leading the rave. Against Barre’s certainty is (I think) Father Mignon’s scepticism. He appears with a vial of Jesu’s blood, which he claims is in a small box. They perform a ritual and it appears to work a miracle, but when the box is opened it’s empty. When the Sisters later troop into the square to watch the acrobats before the execution, one slyly remarks, referring to their gymnastics:
Have we not entertained each other?
The reality of otherwise of the possession is irrelevant as far as the destiny of Grandier is concerned. He’s locked in a cell, brooding on questions of ultimate purpose and reaching some negative conclusions. He’s found guilty of blasphemy and sacrilege, and accused of unrepentant pride.
Stephen Maher’s De Laubardemont is a grimly plausible and chilling prosecutor, who unflinchingly explains to Grandier the stages he will go through under torture:
First, you’ll think, how can man do this to man? Second, how can God allow it? Then, there can be no God. Finally, there is no God.
Grandier is asked:
Will you confess?
He’s not going to comply with the investigation:
Lucifer has sealed his tongue.
Other measures will need to be used, and here Adam and Mannoury bring in a simple-looking contraption into which they position Grandier’s legs. The leg brace has slots where wedges can be hammered in, a single tap producing a hideous shriek of pain. Like Topcliffe in The Dead Shepherd, these torturers take a delight in their craft, and enjoy their trade. When they watch Grandier being burned alive, they take an interest in how human fat is rendered. But it’s OK, since his God is the devil.
Barre is upbeat:
Men of our kind will never lack for employment.
D’Armagnac is downbeat:
We are a rational people, we should be taking a stand — against something.
That pause is brilliant: it’s unthinkable that this something could be religion, and yet religion is precisely what is standing in the way of progress. D’Armagnac can be forgiven for being at a loss. The events portrayed took place over a century before the conceptual shift from superstition to rational explanations was made thoroughly respectable by the Enlightenment (although it’s worth noting that Hippocrates had already diagnosed epilepsy as a disease of the brain and not demonic possession four centuries before Christ was performing exorcisms).
A libertine priest with an unhealthy interest in his young parishioners, central government riding roughshod over local concerns, a church resisting outside interference in its affairs – all aspects of 17th-century Loudun that are not unknown today. Completely unfamiliar, however, is the hooded man left dangling in the public square after being hanged for stealing, and the sight of citizens going about their daily business without batting an eyelid. And yet, in their modern dress, they look just like us. Swirling smoke and a church organ establish an ominous mood, against which the opening, and beautifully sung, plainchant provides another texture in this complex and fascinating drama. The timeless bubble of church doctrine is one of the main themes of Aldous Huxley’s original book, and this production portrays the chilling consequences of unchanging and unchallengeable religious belief. The current pope, for all the praise he has garnered from dull-witted liberals, still gives his official backing to the practice of exorcism, and so endorses belief in diabolical possession. In the twenty-fucking-first century.
(See also The Devils.)
Cast: Trincant / Sister Louise — Jessica Clements; Adam — Jimi Odell; D’Armagnac — Juliette Chrisman; Phillipe / Sister Gabrielle — Liz Stevens; De Cerisay / Cardinal Richelieu — Matthew Tylianakis; Father Barre — Michael Mayne; Sister Jeanne — Rowena Turner; Mannoury — Sam Gregson; Father Grandier — Sam Pearce; Ninion / Sister Claire — Steph Urquhart; Bishop De La Rochepozay / Prince Henri De Conde / Father Ambrose — Simon Hill; Sewerwoman / Bontemps — Sorcha Boyce; De Laubardemont — Stephen Maher; Father Mignon — Benjamin Press