Nestled away in London’s Covent Garden you can find the Donmar Warehouse, one of my favourite theatrical venues in the city. The venue seats 251 and thus leads to an intense and wonderfully intimate experience as an audience member, but the thing I love most is the variety they have in their programme, having to date seen a musical, my favourite work of Shakespeare and a mixture of classic and more contemporary plays there. Also, the casting department seems to provide me no end of joy and amusement as they seem to possess an uncanny knack of casting those performers I love to watch; therefore, I am often more inclined to buy a ticket. Some I know don’t like this approach and say you should go for the show as a whole not a performer, but I firmly believe you can have the best of both worlds: in my experience supporting and admiring the performers I do leads me to see things I may not necessarily always choose to see, which in turn has broadened my horizons and tastes as a theatregoer; something I’ll always be grateful for and am endeavouring to continue doing. As well as onstage, I have had some really amusing and utterly, brilliantly surreal experiences offstage so it’s a venue that I will always hold close to my heart, and I could be found here kicking off my theatrical adventures of 2017 with Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan.
Set in 15th Century France, Shaw’s piece dramatizes what is known of Joan of Arc’s life through substantial records of her trial, first premiering in 1923, three years after her canonization by the Roman Catholic Church. I knew only a little about Joan’s life before coming to the play, and hadn’t read it beforehand, as I do sometimes. As such, I knew I was going to be challenged seeing something based on historical events, but eager at the prospect. I learned later that in his preface to the play, Shaw wrote: “There are no villains in the piece. Crime, like disease, is not interesting: it is something to be done away with by general consent… It is what men do at their best, with good intentions, and what normal men and women find that they must and will do in spite of their intentions, that really concern us.”
Looking back on my experience at the play now, I can see the point he was trying to make in that everybody involved acted in good faith according to what they believed, and as such the dynamic and crux of the drama comes from the choices people make and how people relate to one other. Knowing the setting of the piece and how the productions here like to play with the blend of traditional and more contemporary elements, I was genuinely intrigued by the direction the production would take here, indeed the very first thing we are confronted with is a tableau of Joan, decked out in chain mail, sometimes with sword in hand, kneeling on a spotlight platform mouthing prayers to her “voices” or prostrate before a crucifix. At the back of the stage whilst this is happening, we have a screen blazing with the question: “Must a Christ perish in every age to save those that have no imagination?”, with a projection of rose petals falling on one side, and a waterfall on the other. The combination of Howard Harrison’s Lighting and Duncan Mclean’s Video design from the outset seems to set the tone for on which the rest of Robert Jones’s striking design hangs, placing the classic, some might say expected elements, into a stark contemporary resonance.
ones’s design makes a centrepiece of revolve and a long glass table, like the kind you would find in a boardroom: news commentary, stocks, shares, facts and figures are the order of the day, and what this does is immediately place Joan as the sole female in a space dominated by men. Interestingly, she is the only one in traditional medieval dress throughout the play, which perhaps serves makes her power and influence over them more pronounced. While I found it a little jarring at times to see Joan conversing with the Dauphin over video chat, or a fleeting snippet of Evan Davis on Newsnight, overall I really enjoyed the contemporary touches, as it challenged me to think about how the play is still relevant today, as it’s essentially about individuals challenging the establishment, and deals with questions of religion and the way it can both give hope to and be troubling or difficult to understand to others depending on how you look at it; there’s a particularly interesting scene in which the Bishop of Beauvais (Elliot Levey) and the Earl of Warwick sit (Jo Stone – Fewings) sit and discuss the unnerving prospect of a world in which everyone inherits the “monstrous self-conceit of being directly inspired from heaven. It will be a world of blood, of fury, of devastation…” which hits close to the nerve in light of recent conflicts, and the failing of Robert De Baudricourt’s hens to lay and the uncertainty it creates for the economy could be read as reminiscent of that same uncertainty our own economy faces over Brexit.
The fact I could pick up on the contemporary allusions amid the setting pleased me greatly as it gave me another way “in” to proceedings, but also meant I was hanging on every word where I may have found myself a bit lost. Director Josie Rourke has trimmed the piece down to 2 and three quarter hours, but I found it to be well paced and my attention was always engaged and emotionally invested.
The central power in the play for me, comes back to what I touched upon earlier: Joan being the woman in a man’s world. As the titular figure, Gemma Arterton is quietly radiant, for me her portrayal gave Joan strength in the quality of her conviction: I found it harder to see how she could lead an army, but really easy to see how she beguiles and mystifies the men about her.Her Joan has an easy grace and elegance, but underneath that a steely tenacity that is always there just below the surface, and she taps into it at precisely the right moments with just the right intensity; the trial scene is heartbreaking and gave me goosebumps. There is impressive support all round from the gents who make up the rest of the cast, to name a few: Fisayo Akinade is wonderfully amusing as the Dauphin, Rory Keenan a chilling presence as John Lemaître, The Inquisitor, and Richard Cant is once again on tremendously moving form as John de Stogumber.
The play ends with Joan asking: “O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to accept thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?” which not only did I find both tragic and beautifully haunting, but above all it made me think. The latter trait being the recipe for my favourite kind of theatre.
Photo Credits: Jack Sain