Monday 23 July 2007

St Joan - National Theatre (mk. ii)

[a shorter, revised version of my blog review of St Joan commissioned by and written against the Islamophobes of the NCF]

George Bernard has very much fallen from fashion in recent years, despite the best efforts of the Guardian’s theatre critic, Michael Billington, who seems to run a one man Shaw-revival pressure group. So it initially looks like an act of extreme perversity for the National to revive him as one of the playwrights for their Travelex £10 ticket season. In fact, director Marianne Elliott’s new production of St Joan makes the strongest case for the playwright’s continued survival that has been seen in years. With an hour of material cut from the original script - down to a wordy-but-manageable 3hrs - the play emerges as a highly intelligent, thought-provoking and timely look at the clash between religious fundamentalism and realpolitik.

The primary reason for this success is the play’s surprising even-handedness. Of course Shaw has a thesis; he is a pacifist atheist writing about religion and war. But it is precisely because of his lack of any natural affinities that he creates a play without heroes or villains. One the one hand is a young peasant girl who swears that the voices in her head are messages from God, and on the other is a church and state concerned with avoiding a potential collapse of their powers.

Anne Marie Duff, in spite of an irritating wandering (mostly) Irish accent, is luminously brilliant, presenting Joan as a girl wholly convinced of her divine inspiration and at the same time quite plausibly mentally ill: fragile but steely, with a kind of certainty mixed with desperation. The cast also boasts some excellent supporting characters: Paul Ready’s ineffectual, Frank Spencer-ish Dauphin and Oliver Ford Davies thoughtful and humane as the Inquisitor both stand out, while Warwick and his chaplain excel as dry, witty, Sir-Humphryish Englishmen, more concerned with victory than troublesome questions of fairness or justice.

Rae Smith’s design also helps to modernise the play no end, setting it on a cleverly designed, evocative set comprising a charred, wooden hydraulic platform which variously rotates, and rises to become the walls of Orleans. This is surrounded by blasted trees taken straight from pictures of the Somme. Similarly, the military costumes used variously suggest the French uniforms of WWI and a modern take on the armour of the Middle Ages. The atmospheric look of the thing is beautifully complemented by Jocelyn Pook’s excellent original score, which - far more than functioning as mere background music to scene changes - takes a commanding role in evoking both the battles and the heady medieval religious atmosphere.

It is easy to see the play’s attractions as a candidate for revival in today’s Britain. Elliott does well not to play to the obvious, but ultimately spurious, potential readings of Joan as a religious fundamentalist seeking to liberate her country from an invading foreign power. We are spared the foolishness of seeing Jeanne d’Arc in Iraqi/Palestinian/Chechnyan fatigues. Shaw’s concerns are far more wide-reaching. Through the prism of the Hundred Years War the play examines emerging ideas of nationalism at a time when France was several kingdoms, and England was ruled by “the French”. The play imagines the anticipation of Protestantism, looking at the need by religious leaders to suppress those whose religious fervour ultimately weaken their own power bases. Central to the play is the question, “what will it be when every girl thinks herself a Joan and every man a Mahomet?” In his highly theatrical coda to the play, in which a ghostly Joan revisits her executioners, Shaw wryly suggests that in the fullness of time even the most reviled insurgents can be reclaimed as folk heroes and saints.

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