Saint Joan, in a beautiful production by Marianne Elliott, fills the Olivier Theatre with self-possessed style and composure. It’s not that this is a showy or consciously big production (that goes for the acting too), just that the concept, performances and execution of the piece are so good, everyone in the huge auditorium can’t help but being captivated by it (or they seemed to be when I went). Key to this is a stunning central performance from Anne-Marie Duff as the Maid of Orleans, playing Joan as a wide eyed country girl (which she must have been) with an Irish accent, with great strength but all too human vulnerability. Duff had me on her side form the get go, and despite being what we would now call a religious fundamentalist and an ultra nationalist (or a mental patient more probably), Joan still has the ability to speak to us now, to show us devotion and dedication, that beliefs still matter in an age where apathy and caution sometime seem to rule.
St Joan is ingrained in French culture as a national hero, and venerated a saint by the Catholic Church, yet here in England, whom she helped to defeat in the 15th Century, she seems quite forgotten, I certainly never learnt about her in school. In fact the only time I have ever heard about Joan outside of historical or theatre circles is on the Orange Mobile Phone Network’s advert currently shown at cinemas (where St Joan is satirically turned into a cheerleader to make her more saleable as a movie character). Mentioning this to several young people has elicited a bewildered response.
Shaw seems to like Joan very much; I felt that he must have enjoyed writing her vigorous dialogue and expressing her infectious enthusiasm. He wrote this play in 1923, only three years after the church officially canonised her, and 5 years since death and war had ravaged continental Europe. Jean Anouilh 1952 play also deals with Joan and her life story, and I thought after seeing Shaw’s Saint Joan, how welcome a revival of Anouilh’s play would be, especially because he now seems like an almost forgotten titan of 20th century playwrighting (if only the National had got Elliott to do The Lark in rep with Saint Joan, with the same cast. What an exciting thought!).
But back to the marvellous Joan we do have at the National Theatre, extraordinarily part of the £10 Travelex Season (can there be a better deal in town?). Elliott (responsible for the terrific Pillars of the Community at The NT last season) uses music and movement to effectively underscore and illuminate Shaw’s words, she also shrewdly had playwright Samuel Adamson work with her on some judicious cutting to the mammoth play (Adamson is credited as ‘textual advisor), so this Joan justifies every second of its three hour and ten minute duration, by being simply gripping. Designer Rae Smith gives us a raised square platform in the middle of the Olivier stage, which also revolves and can be used in several versatile ways, whilst in the background we have stark branchless tree trunks. It is a simple and effective set, which the director uses to the full extent, sometimes having the central platform as stage of its own, the rest of the actor watching from the edges, passing up chairs when needed and making their entrances simply by stepping up onto the platform, not coming in from the wings. Elliott also uses choreographed movement (that reminded me slightly of Katie Mitchell’s work), which she makes an integral part of the work. It is especially impressive in the moving moments leading up to the burning of Joan, and in a battle scene, where chair banging and percussive sounds replace swords (also reminding me of Northern Broadsides ‘Wars of The Roses’, where battles were drummed and aggressively tapped danced out to brilliant effect). Elliott is not bound by theatrical conventions or sticking to a rigid style; she has a flag fluttering in the wind done so by hand, and a kingfisher conjured up by two men in black. The music is also a fundamental part of the production, with a live band of five providing beautiful chanting, singing and background sounds to the action. The lighting, by Paule Constable, is also first rate, with highly dramatic framing, often painting an evocative atmosphere.
There is quite a regional feel to the production, by that I mean the characters have different accents and feel like a disparate group brought together by events, convincingly signifying the diversity of France. Joan is a Lorraine woman and speaks with an Irish accent, others speak with a Welsh or Northern drawl, the Dauphine and his peers speak in a more neutral English accent. The play focuses on the conflict between the English, the church and Joan in several terms, one as Catholic hegemony and vested interests fighting against strong nationhood, threatening usurpation of their Rome sanctioned powers, a view which they see as being proposed by Joan. The other is the feudal English wanting to crush any thoughts of a divine King of a truly united Kingdom, a King who actually uses his power against his Barons, again they think that this is what Joan is effectively proposing. The realities of Joan’s power, influence and positions are hard to accurately tell so many hundreds of years later, but Shaw paints Joan as a woman without much more motivation than the voices in her head from god who tell her to drive the English out of France and crown Charles at Rheims Cathedral (which she does). So it is very easy to see Joan as a simple girl which a fearful and protective Church condemns, and whom the British vengefully burn, you can also see they hysteria in her arguments; Joan is not a woman to do things by half or temper he beliefs with reason. Joan’s trial by the Catholic clergy is agonising, and the run up to her death very moving, most affecting for me was the stripping of Joan’s manish clothing when captured by the Burgundians and handed to the English, leaving Joan in a simple smock and looking truly vulnerable for the first time. Adamson and Elliott wisely drop the last scene as written by Shaw, where King Charles meets a cleric and discusses the retraction of Joan’s sentence to heresy, which was done some 25 years after her death. Instead we have an amalgam of this scene, where the relevant information is imparted but the pointless stage business not entered into. At the very end we are left with Joan asking us when the world will ever be ready for people like her. ‘Never’ still seems to be the resounding answer, and I suppose thankfully on one had (one Joan could cause a lot of damage as a devout ‘soldier of God’ in 2007), but sadly on the other (ideals and principals will always be corrupted by human fallibility).
Paul Ready (long a favourite actor of mine) plays the Dauphin as a petulant and rather camp young man, perhaps a tad too camp. The French men of war, here dressed in vaguely early 20th century uniform, are lead by Finn Caldwell as Captain Le Hire (a sympathetic battlefield friend of Joan). The clergy, mostly a self interested cabal, include James Hayes as the Archbishop of Rheims (a politician and arch manipulator), Patterson Joseph as the Bishop of Beauvais (he helps condemn Joan to death and collaborates with the English, but Joseph’s wonderful performance made me believe that he did genuinely want to save her soul. He spoke movingly at the trial, and was overjoyed at Joan’s initial recantation.). The English commander, the Earl of Warwick (Angus Wright), is ever so slightly effete and wonderfully English with it. The rest of the cast (including Oliver Ford Davis as the Inquisitor) are equally good, and work extremely well in this ensemble piece. Overall there are a surprising number of Laugh’s in St Joan, but that certainly dose not overshadow the moving fate of our heroine. A wonderfully production which I would highly recommend.