SAINT JOAN by GEORGE BERNARD SHAW ran at the DONMAR WAREHOUSE from late 2016 to early 2017.
Josie Rourke’s new production of George Bernard-Shaw’s play Saint Joan is innovative, humourous and intense. The show begins as the audience are filing into the theatre, as Gemma Arterton stands in the middle of the stage, bathed in light, whispering prayers and gazing up to the heavens for a full 30 minutes before the play officially begins. She wears armour and holds a sword to her chest, in the way that Saint Joan is most iconically presented.
Gemma Arterton is radiant as Saint Joan and embodies the character beautifully. She is full of the persuasive and bright energy that is needed in order for Joan to be convincing because her story is an unlikely one. The fact that a young woman (she was supposed to be 19-years-old when she died), from an isolated village in North-Eastern France, born into a peasant family, managed to charm her way into the court of the Dauphin and persuade him to make his troops lay siege to Orléans and that she will crown him King in Reims Cathedral, is a far-fetched tale, to say the least. Furthermore, the siege is successful; Joan is not in possession of a remarkable gift for battle planning, but instead, gives credit to her divine “voices” that come to her from God. Her unshakable faith is part of what initially makes her so persuasive but ultimately contributes to those who believed her turning on her and thinking her mad or a with. Her downfall occurs as quickly as her rise to power.
Despite Joan believing that she is guided by God, her greatest opponent becomes the Church, as they become increasingly wary of her undermining the universal power as she instills too much national pride in the French people. Furthermore, she thinks that the king should be answerable only to God, stripping the feudal lords of their power. Suddenly, she is unpopular at court and the feudal lords unite to agree that she must die. She is charged with heresy – because she answers to God (in the shape of her voices), not the Church and its officials.
Joan is the only character in period dress – all the other characters, all men, wear modern suits (apart from the Dauphin, who spends much of the play in his pyjamas, a symbol of his immaturity), isolating her particularly in the trial scene at the end. In the face of her strong religious beliefs, the cold corporate suits only amplify their cynicism. Only after her death do they feel like they have made a mistake and she is posthumously cleared of heresy; the play then fast-forwards to the 1920s to bring the news that she has been canonised.
Rourke’s direction tries to steer the audience too much towards seeing Joan as the absolute heroine of the play, with the swish boardroom of suited men as the ones in the wrong. The beauty of Shaw’s play is that he shows bias towards neither party, allowing the audience to struggle with the moral dilemma themselves. Bernard-Shaw’s biographer, Michael Holroyd, described the play as “a tragedy without villains” – something Rourke’s interpretation is not. The cast are excellent, particularly Gemma Arterton, however, Rourke’s loses much of the spirit of Bernard Shaw’s play behind in the desire to create something fresh and original.