George Bernard Shaw’s ST JOAN, in a production directed by Josie Rourke at the Donmar, is the latest play in the NT Live screenings.
I had mixed feelings about Rourke’s production. Gemma Arterton as St Joan is superb, and the idea of updating the play to now with computers, mobile phones and rolling screens of financial statistics was intriguing but didn’t feel like it worked that well.
The dialogues was beautifully spoken it could perhaps be a terrific radio play version. The play is abridged, but much attention is paid to the complicated, convoluted text of Shaw’s play.
Rourke messily mixes the modern with the medieval and abridges Shaw’s cerebral and elegantly wordy retelling of the story of Joan of Arc to show how the voice driven farmer’s daughter inspired the French, led the defeat of the English, and in turn gets captured, tried, burned at the stake – and later – in a strategic institutional volte-face, is venerated by the Church and then achieves sainthood.
Joan is the only woman on stage and the only performer in fifteenth century costume. The rest of the cast are in contemporary casual clothing, good business suits or ecclesiastical dress.
The production features plenty of allusions to the post Brexit world and technical gadgetry. The idea of updating to The Boardroom, the centre of power, with newsbites is great, but the constant dizzying use of the revolve and the jumping from aerial shots to wide shots to close up is at times dizzying and distracting.
The major themes of Shaw’s play include the right to think independently, the subjugation of women and one woman’s determination to break from free it. There is plenty of talk of “England for the English,”, especially in the scene between the Earl of Warwick (Jo Stone-Fewings) and the heresy-obsessed bishop Cauchon (Elliot Levy).
Gemma Arterton as Joan is magnificent, giving in a luminous performance. Her Joan is strong, handy with horses, and dresses in a manly way. She is driven by her faith, at times feline, and embodies inner resolve.
In the first section of the second Act, Atterton looks stunning in soft brown and looks like a model. She ignores all the warnings her ‘friends ‘ and followers give her. In the second half– which includes the intense courtroom scene – she is scarred and beaten, proud and defiant, true to herself and her Voices. Joan’s impassioned speech against perpetual imprisonment was magnificent.
We see – especially in Act 2 – how Joan is caught and squashed like an unwanted beetle between the warring arms of The Church and the forces of the English and French. The very abridged epilogue is poignantly delivered.
Fisayo Akinade is delightful as a somewhat effete, fey, bullied and belittled Dauphin who eventually becomes crowned as Charles V11 at Rheims.
The heresy trial turns theological dispute into a gripping display of tense, fiery confrontation.
Rory Keenan as the Inquisitor, playing with an American accent, chillingly presents his deceptively soft and measured forensic speech, twisted to blend McCarthyism and trenchant American evangelism .
Summing up, Shaw’s play is a timeless parable of the individual conscience against the establishment, This production doesn’t quite work but is saved by the extraordinary Arterton.
Running time – allow just over three hours including one interval. There is a short introductory documentary beforehand and interviews during the Interval.
The screening was of the production that played the Donmar Theatre London between the 9th December 2016 and the 18th February 2017.
NT LIVE’s ST JOAN is screening at selected arthouse cinemas between the 11th and the 16th March.