Helen Edmundson was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company to write The Heresy of Love, inspired by the life of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a poet nun and major Baroque literary figure of Mexico.
Helen's other plays include The Clearing, Mother Teresa is Dead (Royal Court Theatre) and several stage adaptations of novels. Her adaptation of Jamila Gavin's children's novel, Coram Boy premiered at the National Theatre in 2001.
How did you come to write The Heresy of Love?
I saw the Royal Shakespeare production of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz' play House of Desires in Stratford-upon-Avon during The Spanish Golden Age season in 2004. I thought it was terrific - surprisingly funny and meaningful.
After the show I spoke to the play's director, Nancy Meckler - someone I've been lucky enough to work with a great deal - and she told me that the story of the playwright was extraordinary and that she thought I would love it. She lent me a huge tome about Sor Juana, written by Octavio Paz, and before I was half way through the book, I knew that she was right: it was inspiring stuff, and there was a certainly a play to be written.
How much research did you do?
I did an enormous amount of research. The Paz book was an excellent starting point and very comprehensive. Then there are her poems - lots and lots of them, and her plays. There are two extant complete plays and one more fragmented play. There are also many religious works - often musical - written to be performed in churches. Then there are several documents relating to her life. For example, the confession, which she wrote towards the end of her life, when she decided to retake her vows and renounce writing, still survives.
And I read books by various academics, all looking at Sor Juana from different angles, and I read books about life in seventeenth century Mexico. I was given invaluable help by Dr Catherine Boyle of King's College, London, as well as academics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Is The Heresy of Love a biography of her life?
No, it's not a biography. I haven't written it in order to tell my version of her story, I've written it because her story allows me to write about ideas and questions which I feel to be relevant and important.
I've taken what's known about her as a starting point and then let my imagination go. Just enough is known about her to inspire me, but not enough to stifle me. The play imagines a particular time in her life - a time of crisis. A crisis which throws up questions about, amongst other things, the role of women in the church, and about what happens when we move away from organized religion and try to create a form of faith which suits the way we want to live.
The fact that the story is based on truth gives it an extra dimension, I hope - extra impact.
Can you tell us something about the language and period of the play?
The structure and language of the play reference The Spanish Golden Age plays - including Sor Juana's own work. I would say the language is heightened and loosely metred. I'm not writing in a particular verse form, but there is a sense of rhythm to the language. It's not at all naturalistic or modern.
The play has strong female roles. Are you conscious of this?
Yes. I don't sit down and think I absolutely must write parts for women; it's not my priority but it is certainly my tendency. I tend to centre plays around women. And I love the fact that we can now gather some wonderfully strong actresses on the stage and light the touch paper. But there are some very strong male roles in the play as well.
It would be odd to have a play set in a convent and not have strong women in it!
Did you go abroad to do any research on the play?
No. Not on this occasion. I felt I had gained enough insight from what I'd read.
How involved will you be with the production? Will you be in the rehearsal room?
I plan to be in rehearsals for the first week or ten days or so, when we're looking at scenes for the first time. That way I can feed thoughts in and help the actors become grounded in the world of the play.
Then I'll probably leave them for a while and start coming in when they're running sections together. That's when I'll really start to hear the play, and get a sense of whether I need to make changes or cuts.
What else are you working on at the moment?
I finished the majority of the work on this play quite a long time ago. But I've recently had meetings with Nancy and Jeanie O"Hare (the RSC's Dramaturg) and I'm going to do a re-write over the next couple of weeks.
I've just written a new adaptation of Therese Raquin for the Roundabout Company in New York, and I'm just coming to the end of a play about Mary Shelley for Shared Experience, which will go into rehearsals in February.
I'm also working on some small improvements to Swallows and Amazons, which has just started rehearsals and is coming into the West End this Christmas.
How involved have you been in the concept and design of the production?
I have pretty much left that to the director Nancy Meckler and designer Katrina Lindsay, but Nancy and I have conversations and she's kept me up to speed with her current thinking.
There are some particular challenges with this play in the Swan; a lot of the scenes are set in the locutory of the convent, where the nuns sit on one side of a set of bars, and anyone visiting the convent has to stay on the other side.
Because The Swan has audience on three sides, it's been quite a challenge to find a way of doing this that doesn't leave the audience with poor sight lines. But Nancy and Katrina have found a clever solution. The set is really exciting. It's going to be bold and strong.
How did you become a playwright?
I was an actress for a while. I set up an agit-prop company, and wrote a lot of songs and political comedy sketches. Then, before leaving the company, I wrote a musical comedy for them to perform.
On the strength of that, I was commissioned to write a play by a theatre company in Manchester, and my writing took off from there.