Perhaps the most satisfying variety of solo show is that such as the one written and performed by Linn Maxwell – “Hildegard of Bingen and the Living Light” (now playing daily at Surgeons Hall) – which seizes a fascinating subject and does the utmost to bring it to life. Maxwell is startlingly talented – performing in countless orchestras, operas, and cabarets – and, goggling at her resume, one wonders whether she or Hildegard is the greater superwoman. But Hildegard was most definitely a superwoman. Born at the turn of the twelfth century in the Rhenish bit of Germany, Hildegard broke through the misogyny of her day with her visionary and reforming monastic leadership, founding abbeys and corresponding with kings and popes, and Maxwell’s performance is an earnest, if not unqualified, tribute to her ambition and energy.
One may wonder why an atheist such as myself would wish to be regaled by the apparition of a medieval abbess, but Maxwell, whilst keeping her views to herself on the credibility of Hildegard’s “visions,” suggests that Hildegard’s greatest achievements were temporal – that, as an artist, educator, and intellectual, Hildegard embodied and campaigned for the spirit of Enlightenment. Yet the theology is interesting too. Whilst the visions of “living light” can be cheerfully explained away as migraines, and other medieval mystics such as Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe reported far more colourful visions, the value of Hildegard’s testimony was proto-Protestant, in going behind and beyond the will of the church to seek authenticity in direct personal experience. In order to be heard, however, Hildegard needed to tender a convincing enough impression of humility, and use her diplomatic arts to win powerful friends. She was not wholly holy, and Maxwell’s play is at its best when observing Hildegard’s “arrogance and pride,” as well as her love for an absconding abbess. One at times wishes that any cynical suspicions about Hildegard were given a little more succour, but this may have jeopardised the overall portrait.
I have no ear for this sort of music, but the generous helpings of Hildegard’s songs, which Maxwell performs on various medieval instruments (including what looks like a hurdy-gurdy) sound very beautiful indeed. Her Hildegard is apparently addressing us from heaven, where she stands before an opulent spread of greenery and religious knick-knacks. 900 years after her death, she wishes to intervene in the world’s affairs once more in order to promote “holistic healing,” although some of us may think that there is a sufficient amount of that stuff already cluttering up the Earth. From the props, it looks as if Hildegard has spent the centuries since playing her harp upon a cloud.