These days it’s so hard to get a ticket for a show at the Donmar that I go for entire seasons without seeing a single thing. I was a bit sad, then, when I saw the promo posters for Saint Joan – a play I’d never heard of (and certainly not seen) by George Bernard Shaw, one of my favorite playwrights – and realized that unless the gods smiled very favorably upon me, there was little chance of me getting to go. And yet, there I was, the Friday before Christmas (well, close enough), rather stuffed full of panto, and there was …. not just a crummy standing seat … but a juicy front row center ticket that would be all mine if I’d just fork over the full price of forty quid. Well. That’s at the top end of what I’m willing to spend for everything, but you could hardly ask for anything better. In fact, I wound up feeling a bit like Santa had come by for an early visit. Religious fanaticism and being burned at the stake? Ho ho ho!
So … this is going to be slightly different review from my normal “I had no idea what was going to happen and this is what I experienced” write up … instead, I’m going to look at this play through the lens of someone who is a fan of Shaw, and who has seen both Shakespeare’s version of Joan of Arc as well as Theo Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Briefly, though, the play is given a very modern setting, as the meetings that would normally have taken place at castles or abbeys are instead held around boardroom tables by men in suits (although Joan, oddly enough, appears in Gothic garb). It’s a very effective touch, because what these people are is, really, decision makers, and I found it easy to swallow the ridiculous (miracles and religion) when framed in such an every day context.
Joan as a character needs to carry a lot. Is she an evil witch? The Brits think so (and may have truly believed so in Shakespeare’s time), but Shaw is too much of a realist to go down this path. Is she inspirational? That’s the core of Shaw’s portrayal, and Gemma Arterton embraces that, like a one-woman life coach for the entire French army, seen here coaxing the Dauphin and Archbishop as well as military men with a combination of emotion, religion, touch, humanity, and vision. She seems a dream leader … but Shaw pulls us back to the ground. In a masterful scene – typically Shaw because he’s basically speechifying at us – the English contingent reminds us about the dangers of both nationalism and religious fanaticism. Or, rather, I think Shaw is trying to remind us of where things are going to go historically … but what I heard was a voice from the past warning us that the route to fascism and religious intolerance were often hidden beneath the guise of popularity and “being inspiring.” So here’s Joan … telling people to die in the name of God and encouraging divides based on national origin. Suddenly with that filter it all seems a little more creepy.
Playing a crazed teenager who’s able to rouse a nation to war is doubtlessly not easy. Arterton has the look of someone who can see God, but I felt her sense of betrayal at the end wasn’t as convincing as it should have been (despite the nicely conjured tears). The key role of the Dauphin was also just too weak and wiggly to be convincing. Still, the power players in the rest of the cast – the religious court that sits in judgment in the second act, and the French courtiers – seem strong enough to carry the rest of the play. Overall, it was a good night, and from my front row center seat my interest never flagged. (The gentleman next to me dozed off, however, so caveat emptor.)
(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, December 16, 2016. It continues through February 18th.)