08 August 2007

Saint Joan- National Theatre, Friday 3rd August 2007

I’m finding it hard to write this review – I wasn’t feeling great, for various reasons, and a lot of it I saw “through a glass, darkly” as the saying goes. Its very long and, in parts, very wordy and static, and deals with quite a weighty subject – there is little of the light froth of, say, “Arms and the Man” or even “Pygmalion”. Its also the second play I’ve seen lately that indulges in Catholic-bashing! There’s also quite a lot of “England-bashing” – to greatly humorous effect, but each with a dark undertone that suggests in itself the gloom of forbidding castle walls. In fact, the only character that comes out unbashed is Joan herself - presented less as a visionary or mystic than an image on a fluttering banner around which a battered army re-forms, a secular Virgin inspiring her muddy and war-weary troops. Because, essentially, that’s all Joan of Arc was – a figurehead for a cause, a simple country girl who somehow managed to inspire an army and who was ultimately betrayed by her own side.

One of the faults of the play, I think, is that there is no examination of whether Joan’s “Voices” are the product of a deranged mind or whether she is really on the receiving end of Divine inspiration. Its almost as if Shaw was in love with his heroine and out of love with everyone else. What is also difficult to reconcile is the action-packed first half ending with a very long and static final scene, and then the almost entirely static second half which deals only with her trial. Still, that’s the fault of the text, rather than this production, which seems to be wowing audiences at the moment, mainly due to the incredible, gut wrenching performance by Anne-Marie Duff.

The “modernisation” of the trial scene in this production was very difficult to cope with – Joan sits practically alone on stage, with spotlights trained on her and using a microphone on a stand, almost as if the trial was some kind of Nazi interrogation – which I suppose essentially it was. I’ve seen this device used on stage before in trial scenes – I think in “Measure for Measure” - and it never fails to irritate me. Although the play is presented in a spare “non-period” way – no tabards, trumpets and fleur-de-lys here – it feels very jarring with the subject matter. A bit of period realism perhaps wouldn’t have come amiss – and I was looking forward to a good funeral pyre, with lots of hissing, crackling flames licking round. What I got was a shaft of white light and a lot of stage smoke. There was one odd touch of realism which jarred horribly because it was doubled up with imagery – a kingfisher is sighted on the banks of the river. When in flight, this was represented by some tattered strips of turquoise ribbon attached to the end of a long pole. However, we also got a “glove puppet” kingfisher for a few short moments, which was then replaced with the swirling ribbons. Very odd. What I did enjoy was the physicality of many of the scenes – particularly the “Stomp” inspired battle scene depicting the taking of Orleans; noisy, brutal and visually exciting.

All honours, of course, to the “Joan” although I did find her Irish accent somewhat difficult to reconcile with the character initially. How she can play that part 8 times a week and not be shaking and crying at the curtain call is completely beyond me. The trial scene was saved in its entirety by a masterful Oliver Ford Davies as the Inquisitor – every syllable and inflection perfectly placed and projected with supreme gravitas (and probably audible in the very back row, which contrasted unmercifully with the muddy consonants and poor delivery of some of the minor cast). Paul Ready played the Dauphin with just a hint too much sulky brattishness for my liking and I do wonder whether the heir to the throne of France ever wore purple football socks. Angus Wright was terrifyingly sardonic as the Earl of Warwick and displayed devastating comic timing, but I wish someone would tell Brendan O’Hea to stop swivelling his hips while speaking – I found the constant flexing of his pelvis and his seeming inability to put equal weight on both feet very irritating.

I just wish that I had been in a better frame of mind on the day as I think I would have enjoyed this production rather more than I did.

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