The many portrayals of Joan of Arc across history have been consistently polarised: interpretations of her character swing from Joan the heretic, to Joan the martyr and saint, seemingly without intermediary. George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Saint Joan’ ruffled feathers in its determination to make these extremes meet, and portray Joan as complex, multi-faceted character. Director Josie Rourke’s modernised interpretation of Shaw’s story gave us fresh eyes with which to view an old tale.
Rourke took a medieval story and set it in a present-day context. This was successful in that it made the play and its lessons apply simultaneously to the present and the past, but the focus on modernity somewhat ironed out the complexities of the play. Dressing Gemma Arterton as Joan in period costume surrounded by men in modern clothing heightened Joan’s social isolation. However, it also emphasised the feminist interpretation of the play – Joan against the patriarchy – over the socialist one – Joan against the institution. While modernising old stories can give us new interpretations of them, it can also be distracting.
At the heart of the play is a desire to portray humans not as villains or heroes, but as well-intentioned yet flawed beings. In his 1923 preface to the play, Shaw wrote: ‘there are no villains in the piece … it is what men do at their best, with good intentions, that really concern us’. While this moral neutrality was well-represented in the character of Joan, it fell short with everyone else. The second that we villainise the institutions against her, we lose the objectivity of the play.
It was Arterton’s embodiment of Joan that carried the production. She was riveting, impassioned, and deeply moving. In her, the audience saw an unshakeable faith in her God, and a startling obstinacy in the face of institutional resistance. As the play progressed, Arterton took Joan from a shining idol to an arrogant, almost delusional soldier whose conviction in her own purpose outweighed the voice of apparent reason, in the Dauphin (Fisayo Akinade), Dunois (Hadley Fraser), and Cauchon (Elliot Levey).
Complementing Arterton’s Joan, the actors embodying the social order against her were played with a subtlety that surpassed the stereotypes of their roles. Elliot Levey takes Cauchon, the corrupted cleric, and gives him an unexpected lingering piety. Where Richard Cant’s De Stogumber could be little more than a livid priest baying for Joan’s blood, his character is also a narrow-minded nationalist, later toppled by his own ignorance and cruelty. Each pillar of society – King, Church, and army – is invested with a complexity that gives the play its strength: its ability to give equal weight to each side of an argument.
Another important aspect of the play was its interpretation of the institution of war. Traditionally, the story of Joan is portrayed in sweeping battle scenes and hilltop speeches. Instead, we got the business end of the narrative: share prices and news updates between scenes centred on a conference table that seats the politicians who organise war, but do not participate in it. This made the criticism of power so much clearer. The result, however, was almost too thinly veiled, distracting from the main theme of conflict between individual visionary and the establishment.
Rourke’s interpretation of Shaw’s play is endlessly clever, and very well-crafted. The production offers striking commentary on war, religion, gender, and politics, overthrowing convention and, further, stripping bare an institution to reveal the rot beneath. Its resonances with present-day politics make for a poignant yet tragic tale. It’s definitely worth seeing, if not for Arterton’s acting, then for a retelling of an old story. Even if we all know how it ends, the road to Joan’s stake leaves the audience reeling.
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