Left – Sarah Snook. Photo – Rene Vaile
This new presentation of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan presents the story of Joan of Arc’s role in history as an inspirational national hero spurred by “voices from God” to drive back the occupying English from her native France, with a focus on the behind-the-scenes machinations culminating in her trial for heresy.
This almost century-old play can be appreciated on various levels by today’s audiences. There is a wholly intentional feminist slant to the current production. The iniquity of a young woman so empowered on the battlefield being subjected to trial by an encircling array of angry and frightened men demonising her for heresy and disobedience towards society’s rules is potent stuff in today’s climate. In part, the play also reads as a legal drama of sorts, fitting well in the theatrical canon depicting travesties of justice, and especially persecution by religious courts, perhaps still most famously seen in the perennial school text, The Crucible by Arthur Miller.
It also works as a political thriller, as the conspiracy of politically motivated actions leading to Joan’s capture and trial are unmistakable, with a fundamentally pro-English group of clergy acting as her judges. For anyone interested in the actual religious implications and history of the Inquisition and partisan actions of the Catholic Church, this is riveting stuff. It is especially so in light of the ecclesiastical retcon of her being later canonised as the play’s titular Saint, by the very institution which excommunicated and condemned her.
For a generation less familiar with the iconic Maid of Orléans’ story, perhaps due to her relative lack of popcultural representation in recent decades, this may even serve as an engrossing first exposure. However, it is a very talky affair, and some younger patrons, perchance expecting something portraying the army leading, sword-wielding Joan in more of an action-hero vein, may find the earlier scenes a little slow.
Although relatively unobtrusive, the use of modern dress in this production seems a bit of a non-sequitur, especially in its curious contrast to Joan’s entry in a gleaming medieval suit of armour. While director Imara Savage and designers David Fleischer and Renee Mulder were clearly striving for a contemporised sense of cultural immediacy with their “stripped back” staging, it serves instead to push the play into the realm of generic modernised Shakespeare productions’ default quest to court audiences’ sense of “relevance.” This is all well and good for tales of ancient myth and legend, or even Shakespeare’s highly fictionalised “history” plays, yet for a drama based in part on actual court transcripts such as Shaw’s is, if anything this approach merely serves to undermine the most remarkable thing about Joan’s story – that it really happened.
While by no means a ruinous blunder for this show, unfortunately it is just the latest example whereby the current orthodoxy of compulsory relative modernism on stage seems beholden to an outmoded fear that audiences will run screaming from any historical play employing remotely period-accurate garb. In an era where elaborate costume dramas, historical epics, and the medievalist fantasy genre account for a slew of the most expensive and successful shows on television, the old chestnut of paranoia concerning the perceived irrelevance of “masterpiece theatre” risks underestimating current audiences by putting too much emphasis on the superficial, when powerful casts, bold direction and innovative dramaturgy are the real strengths of any new revival of a theatrical classic. Fortunately, this production has all of these qualities in abundance.
As to the show’s dramaturgical approach, Savage has collaborated with Emme Hoy on “additional text” while also significantly shortening the play, including curtailing Shaw’s epilogue, and re-ordering the scenes into a somewhat non-linear chronology. The twin aims of these changes to the play are evidently to shift the emphasis onto Joan’s trial, trimming out much of the material adjacent to the progress of her military campaigns, and tightening focus on the duelling perspectives of Joan herself and the bickering, politically entangled men who are closing in on her.
It makes for a powerful, dramatically cogent piece in which Joan is always the subject at hand, whether we are hearing from the woman herself, or those speaking to or about her, she is at the eye of this storm of politics, religion, and war. The image of the comparatively diminutive Joan boxed in by the impenetrable semicircle of seemingly towering men in their cassock-like black coats, as they stand in judgment over her defiant and pious self-conviction, is but one of the many indelible moments in the thrilling trial scene that is a veritable showstopper.
Savage’s direction is economical, combining with the minimalist production design to leave virtually all the focus on the performances from her flawless cast. Stalwarts like Anthony Taufa, Gareth Davies and Socratis Otto go toe-to-toe with treasures of the stage John Gaden and William Zappa in the heavyweight roles. It is an embarrassment of riches for these parts which, inevitably, come to be seen as supporting players to Sarah Snook as the persecuted heroine.
One of the cannier choices in Savage’s reordering of scenes has the play open with Joan standing motionless upstage, encased in a suit of armour while the various priests, bishops and political fixers vociferously talk about her, long before the scene shifts to have Joan come forward to unmask and join the story. This gives the emergence of her own powerful voice a weight of anticipation that is potent indeed.
Snook is excellent in the title role, displaying the dangerous and catalysing charisma that a figure at the intersection of so many extraordinary events must possess, while also embodying the character’s equally inspirational yet troubling conviction and self-belief. She achieves this with considerable range, also showing Joan’s impatience and certainty in opposition with her vulnerability when under duress. Hers is a performance never overly suggestive of easy readings of the character as either insane or genuinely touched by the divine. Much like the historical Joan, Snook’s characterisation is open to many competing interpretations, yet manages the challenging task of staying grounded and human, still sympathetic for modern audiences to whom her religious fervor in today’s context could easily be viewed as something akin to fundamentalist extremism.
Although not without some caveats, the STC’s new production of Saint Joan comes firmly recommended, reworking Shaw’s original text in a robust new version filled with passionate and moving performances.
Sydney Theatre Company presents
by George Bernard Shaw
Director Imara Savage
Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre | The Wharf, Pier 4 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay NSW
Dates: 5 – 30 June 2018