Saint Joan -September 2007

8/10

By: George Bernard Shaw

Directed by: Marianne Elliot

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Tuesday 25th September 2007

This was an amazing production. At first, I wasn’t sure if I would take to it, but once I got used to the style being used, I became completely enthralled, and cried buckets. It’s as if, finally, we’re starting to get enough distance from Shaw to do proper modern productions, without the concern for his detailed stage directions and vision. This was such a contemporary version, that both Steve and I felt the dialogue had been updated – it seemed so modern.

The set was reminiscent of the Romeo and Juliet directed by Nancy Meckler as part of the RSC’s Complete Works Festival. There was a square raised area in the centre of the stage, sloping slightly from back to front, and around the back of the stage were blasted tree trunks at various angles. Otherwise, the stage seemed completely bare. A stack of chairs stood on the platform, all piled up higgledy-piggledy, and the opening to the play had a number of the cast (there was one woman and about twenty men) come on from the back in slow motion, and gradually unpack the chairs. They stood for a moment at the back, doing what looked like tai chi hand movements – don’t know what that was meant to represent – then a number went round the sides of the platform and stood there, while others got onto the platform and passed chairs down to them. All of this was done in slow motion, very gracefully, almost balletic, and all the while there was haunting music filling the space. There was also a woman’s voice, with a song that was somewhat medieval, somewhat religious, somewhat folk music.

Given the staging, I wasn’t surprised to find the chairs being slammed down onto the stage from time to time – in similar vein to the poles in Romeo and Juliet – as a stylised form of combat. At one point, a chair had taken too much punishment and disintegrated, having to be carried off in pieces by the actor.

Almost forgot – at the very start, there was a church cross on a pole at the back of the stage, and some chap took it off. OK, so there we were with two rows of chaps on either side of the platform, holding chairs, and obviously going to slam them down all at the same time, which they did. I had hoped this would lead us straight into the wonderful opening line – one of the best in all drama – but there was more slow-motion stuff as the stage was prepared. When we did finally get “No eggs!”, there wasn’t much energy around to give it any punch, which I do feel is a waste. I also found it distracting to have all the other actors standing around, or sitting, as the scenes were acted on the platform. The slow motion was also used a lot, as characters would suddenly “go slow” as they left the platform, and either stand still waiting for their next entrance, or walk off very slowly. At first this was distracting, then the play started to work its magic, and I found it all helped to build a superb atmosphere.

The platform in the middle also showed more flexibility than I expected. I thought it might be a bit dull having such a sparse set, but as the scenes changed, the platform rotated (on the revolve) and later rose up, to create a slope for the walls of Orleans, and a lean-to effect behind the political discussion between the English and the Catholic Church’s representative. For some scenes, the revolve was slow but continuous, creating interesting changes of perspective throughout the scene.

All the performances were terrific. Anne-Marie Duff was a great Joan. She gave us the wilfulness and naivety along with her courage and absolute faith in her connection to God through her voices. This only wavered when she was confronted with the horror of being burned at the stake, and her fear of physical pain came to the fore. Her renewal of her faith once she realises she could be kept a prisoner for the rest of her life was very moving, and I sobbed. (Actually, I sobbed many times during the performance, this was only one of them.) I was very aware of the fact that there were no other women on the stage, and that hers was a lone voice speaking up against the dogmatism of learned men, some honourable, some not, but all out of touch with the reality of Spirit. In some ways I’m amazed at the marvellous lines Shaw gives Joan and the other characters. I’ve not always thought of Shaw as the greatest observer of human nature – good, but not the greatest – but here he showed such compassion and balance in the writing that I may have to consider this his masterpiece.

Other performances I want to mention include Michael Thomas, Angus Wright and Paterson Joseph as the three plotters who perhaps contribute the most to Joan’s downfall. Michael Thomas plays the Chaplain de Stogumber, Angus Wright plays the Earl of Warwick, and Paterson Joseph plays the Bishop of Beauvais. The chaplain seems to be anti everything – a Daily Mail reader, but with more right-wing views. His character gets to express straightforward anti-Semitism in a way that would be virtually impossible in a modern play, but in this context it simply shows what sort of ideas these people had. The Earl of Warwick is educated, but doesn’t let that stand in his way. He’s a political animal, looking for the best solution for English interests, and prepared to make a pact with the devil if that will do the job. He generally smoothes over the feathers ruffled by his outspoken chaplain, but is capable of ruffling a few himself. The Bishop is concerned for the Church’s position, and also for Joan’s soul, but as the Church’s position has often relied upon political manoeuvring, he and the Earl can come to an accommodation. The discussion among these characters was fascinating and showed understandable motivations for the aspects of society they represent. They’re not villains, but they are dangerous if you’re on the “wrong” side.

Finally, Paul Ready as the Dauphin was wonderfully pouty and reluctant, a spoilt royal brat with no interest in taking charge. Unfortunately, when he finally does, it’s to renounce Joan and her advice, so he’s obviously not much good at gratitude either.

The production includes a final scene that I don’t remember from before, but that may just be my bad memory. After she’s been killed, all those involved reappear and discuss their parts in her killing. Some have changed their minds about her, some haven’t. She confronts them, and gradually they all head off, leaving her alone on stage. She also leaves, and we see the opening process of unstacking chairs gone through again, leading right up to the opening of the play, but stopping before the first line.

This is of course suggestive of a repeating cycle, but here I found it inappropriate, as I don’t see Joan’s story as cyclical. Aspects of what happened on stage are constantly recurring, but I didn’t feel the repetition angle was justified by what we’d seen. I was very aware how dangerous dogma can be, especially when people see being different as being wrong. I also felt that somehow France wasn’t in as much danger once the Dauphin had been crowned, that the men who were now in charge would sort things out, eventually, and that they were very concerned to do that themselves, not with the help of a gurl. In fact, perhaps the contrast between then and now in terms of how women are treated, is what makes me feel there isn’t a repeating cycle. The misogyny expressed so clearly would be less likely today, with so much attention to political correctness, however much it may still lurk beneath the surface. I see the relevance of this story to today more in standing up to authority according to the dictates of your heart. Comparisons of Joan to modern-day terrorists seem to miss the point of the play – she was right, and history appears to have vindicated her.

Most of all, I liked this production because it seems to be the first to really shake off the Shavian legacy, and present the play just as a play. I hope to see more such productions, although how well they’ll respond to such treatment remains to be seen.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

One comment on “Saint Joan -September 2007

  1. Peter Serres says:

    The Epilogue is sometimes cut. “The last of her? I wonder” can provide a satisfactory ending. Here the playing added more than extra running time.

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