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Saint Joan
On from 04 Jul 2007 till 04 Sep 2007
National Theatre
by Bernard Shaw
Genre(s): Drama

About: Saint Joan

The heretic is always better dead. And mortal eyes cannot distinguish the saint from the heretic.

Starring our patron Paterson Joseph!

A country girl in her late teens declares her bloody mission to drive the English from France and to crown the reluctant Dauphin as King. With staggering confidence, she takes command of the army and conducts a brutal campaign that leads to Charles VII's coronation. But as one of the first Protestants and nationalists, she threatens the very fabric of feudal society and the Catholic Church across Europe. Within one year she is burnt at the stake.

She is inspired, but diabolically inspired.

Anne-Marie Duff plays Joan.

Click here to see the podcast with Paterson in the dressing room during rehearsals >>

Reviews

Michael Billington
Thursday July 12, 2007
The Guardian

Aside from a touring production of Widowers' Houses, this is the first Shaw play the National has presented in 13 years: a symbol of our scandalous neglect of a great dramatist. But Marianne Elliott's production should put to rest the notion that Shaw was simply a didactic old windbag. Even if it occasionally lapses into self-conscious theatricality, it is intellectually vigorous, visually exciting and boasts a glowing performance from Anne-Marie Duff.

However, Elliott's first innovation, following the lead she set in Pillars of the Community, is to suggest that this is an ensemble play rather than a star vehicle. Rae Smith's central raked platform is constantly surrounded by watching actors on chairs.

This transforms the very first scene, when Joan persuades a military squire to back her mission to the Dauphin, from a piece of rustic comedy into a public demonstration of her power. And later it turns the trial scene into a noisy, disruptive affair in which the Catholic hierarchy's attempt to save Joan's soul is barracked and heckled from the sidelines.

Occasionally, in its attempts to give the play extra urgency, Elliott's production lapses into the kind of spectacle Shaw deliberately avoided. The raising of the siege of Orleans is like something out of Stomp, with the company hammering corrugated iron walls with staves. The Dauphin's coronation in Rheims Cathedral is emblematically displayed. And, at the end, Joan's burning is symbolically shown as she mounts a pile of stacked-up chairs from which she falls backwards as the flames lick her feet. All this is excitingly done. It also suggests that modern physical theatre has much in common with 19th century Lyceum melodrama.

But the virtue of Elliott's production is that it boldly expresses the idea at the heart of Shaw's play: that Joan's championship of the individual conscience was a threat both to the established church and feudal power.

All this comes across in the brilliant scene where Warwick and Cauchon, watched by a fiery English chaplain, debate how best to suppress her subversiveness.

As Angus Wright's silky Warwick pours tea from a silver pot for Paterson Joseph's earnest bishop, you have a sense of the timeless collusion of church and state against any external challenge. When Cauchon asks "what will it be when every girl thinks herself a Joan and every man a Mahomet?" you are also topically reminded of the dangers inherent in anarchic individualism.

Shaw's peculiar genius in this play, in fact, was to present the case for and against Joan: as Eric Bentley once wrote, "the happy fact about Shaw's impartiality is that he seems to be not on neither side but on both sides". And this emerges clearly in the trial scene. Joseph's Cauchon valiantly fends off the baying pack in his attempt to save Joan's soul.

And Oliver Ford Davies delivers the Inquisitor's great speech about heresy's threat to the social order directly to the audience with a calm, rational persuasiveness.

On the other side of the equation, Anne-Marie Duff's Joan offers a superb mixture of assurance and vulnerability. With her soft Irish accent and arrestingly bony features, she looks and sounds like an outsider in a conformist world: we also see the startling physical transformation she undergoes from beskirted peasant to close-cropped soldier. But Duff's great gift is to convey Joan's humanity.

There's a great moment in Rheims Cathedral when Christopher Colquhoun's sympathetic Dunois suggests that the army cannot rely for ever on God's intervention. Duff turns away in baffled tears at this direct challenge to her faith. And in the trial scene the belief that she has been deserted by her voices produces a series of heart-wrenching wails.

In the truncated epilogue, Duff also cuts a figure of startling solitude as her guilt-ridden contemporaries, including Paul Ready's wonderfully fey Dauphin, flee in terror at the thought of her return.

This seems to me a sure sign that Elliott has got Shaw's play exactly right: that now, as then, Joan's brand of reckless individualism presents a threat to social order.

What amazes me is that we have managed to live without this potent political masterpiece for so long.

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