Saint Joan – Review

Saint Joan. Images Jack Sain.

The image of an illiterate Joan of Arc using a Mac is, visually, straight out of some marketing campaign. What better way to extol the simplicity of the Apple than by showing history’s most famous uneducated feminist making childsplay of its its operating system?

Josie Rourke is big on imagery in her thrilling production of Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan which opened just before Christmas at London’s Donmar Warehouse.

Before the play has even begun the audience enters the theatre to find Gemma Arterton’s Joan, dressed, as we picture her, in armour, deep in prayer and contemplation.

Think of Joan and two things immediately spring to mind. The knowledge that we all have, learned either in school or church, that this idealistic young soldier of god was burned at the stake, and the classic image of her, from the art world, of the warrior Joan rallying her troops.

What we don’t imagine is Joan facing a boardroom of hedge fund managers to discuss the price of eggs.

I loved Rourke’s inventive interpretation almost as much as Gemma Arterton’s radiant performance as the saintly, single-minded Joan.

The drama opens with the shock news that France’s hens have stopped laying and there is a run on the stock market.

“No eggs!” screams the boss, Baudricourt (Matt Bardock), who is sitting at a vast executive-style glass and chrome table, in front of a stage-sized screen, watching share prices tumble and the dire predictions of a crash in the markets.

His steward brings worse news. “The Maid is outside and they can’t get rid of her.”

It soon becomes clear, without little exposition or prologue, that Joan, also known as Jenny, a simple farm-girl from an impoverished village, is a thorn in everyone’s side.

Out of nowhere this driven teenager has come to tell the lords and, ultimately The Dauphin, that she has God and Right on her side (not to mention visions from two dead saints and an angel).

Hand over control of the army and she will vanquish the English, drive them from French shores, and crown the young prince as the new king. Mmm, right.

If someone came up with that sort of absurd and preposterous demand in this day and age then there’s no doubt that they would be sectioned and carted off for the duration to be examined by mental health experts.

But, way back in the 1400s, you believed her – obviously – particularly as recalcitrant hens across the nation resumed their egg-laying duties once the charismatic Joan’s plans were given a green light.

While set in France of the 15th century you’ll be surprised to see how tech savvy they are in this production with video conferencing, laptops and smartphones.

Yet, when it comes down to it they rely on a slip of a girl, dressed as a boy, to engage and thwart the opposition with little more than rhetoric, divine protection, and a sword.

There’s been some criticism that this engrossing production only comes to life when the luminous Arterton is on stage and she is, without a doubt, a born leader among men.

But I found the plotting and behind-the-scenes machinations between the traitorous, ungrateful French and the English (in the shape of an oily, reptilian Earl of Warwick, a wickedly wonderful, moustached, Jo Stone-Fewings), absolutely fascinating.

The way they betrayed Joan – after she secured a spectacular and unexpected victory – reminded me of Margaret Thatcher’s downfall. Theresa May could learn a lesson or two from this. Never trust the men claiming to be the closest and most devoted to you.

Shaw, and, indeed Rourke, do their best not to make complete villains out of the French clergy but it is hard to agree with them.

The clerical hierarchy protest that everything they do to Joan – from her arrest, to her savage torture, her trial and subsequent execution (horrifically burned alive) – is to save her soul. There must be easier ways.

Elliot Levey’s calm, controlled and fair-minded portrayal of English partisan, Pierre Cauchon, is chilling.

Playing the diplomatic Mr Fix-It, his behind-closed-doors meeting with the ambitious Warwick see the two discuss religion, politics and power – and the repercussions if the jingoistic Joan is allowed to remain free (an early supporter of Brexit she wanted France for the French and England for the English, with foreigners driven out).

Rory Keenan’s slick, American-voiced trial lawyer is a top class Inquisitor and terrifyingly good at his job. His examination of the Maid of Orléans is a masterclass in court cross-examination. She doesn’t stand a chance.

Arterton’s standout performance is supported by a top class ensemble that includes Niall Buggy, perfectly cast as the archbishop, and Fisayo Akinade’s impressive turn as the effete Dauphin.

My only, very tiny, niggle was at Robert Jones’ revolving set which continually spun throughout the entire performance. I felt quite nauseous by the conclusion.

Saint Joan plays at the Donmar Warehouse until February 18 with a global live broadcast, via the National Theatre’s NTLive initiative, on February 16.

Rating Review
  • Saint Joan
4

Summary

Imaginative and charismatic. Gemma Arterton radiates charm and saintliness in the Donmar Warehouse production of Bernard Shaw’s passionate Saint Joan.

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