Classic plays are getting a bit of a shake-up in London this month. Following on from Ivo van Hove’s contemporary, white-box treatment of Hedda Gabler at the National and Robert Icke’s stripped-back, coin-tossing Mary Stuart at the Almeida, Josie Rourke has given a similarly radical update to Saint Joan at the Donmar.
Bernard Shaw’s 1923 play focuses on the French medieval warrior-saint Joan of Arc who, apparently driven by voices direct from God, left her village to inspire the French army to a series of stunning victories against the occupying English forces. She was then captured, tried for heresy and burnt at the stake. Shaw’s play was itself a fresh socialist/feminist take on the notorious historical events but here the story of the Maid of Orléans is made over for modern times.
As the audience enters, Joan is already kneeling on a dais rapt in prayer in front of a crucifix, dressed in chainmail and bearing a sword, as she bathes in holy light while ethereal music plays. Behind her a banner reads: ‘Must a Christ perish in every age to save those that have no imagination.’ But as she exits she takes off the drape to reveal a long glass table, and the setting is transformed into a contemporary boardroom of a commodity brokers with video screens displaying market prices and financial news. Joan later re-enters this aggressively male corporate world demanding to be taken to the big boss Dauphin and promising victory over the enemy in this capitalistic war.
The only woman on stage, Joan cuts a striking figure as a feminist icon battling against the patriarchal establishment. This works pretty well in terms of the play’s sexual politics, as well as accentuating the idea of a visionary maverick in conflict with the status quo in government, army and church. However, the theme of apparently miraculous spiritual faith doesn’t fit very well with this 21st-century, secular, materialistic world where everything can be bought or sold. The epilogue set 25 years after Joan’s death ends with her ghostly words, ‘When will the earth be ready be ready to receive Thy saints’, but her status as a religious martyr is undercut here.
Robert Jones’s carpeted office design also occasionally features a background triptych of medieval artwork as well as Bloomberg-style reports and Newsnight’s Evan Davis on video. Despite an initial injection of dynamism to otherwise relatively static scenes, the slowly revolving boardroom becomes irritating after a while.
In the title role, Gemma Arterton gives a performance full of passionate conviction, conveying Joan’s arrogance as well as her determination, though she seems far from being the gauche social misfit from a humble background and instead seems perfectly at ease in the corridors of power as she touches the men on the cheek or holds their neck. In fact, she’s much more sassy than virginal.
There is also a strong supporting cast. Fisayo Akinade raises some laughs as the slightly camp, self-obsessed Dauphin, Niall Buggy is the pompous archbishop appalled at Joan’s challenge of bypassing the church hierarchy and Hadley Fraser is the military leader – the ‘Bastard’ sympathetic to Joan but wary of her gung-ho tactics. Jo Stone-Fewings is the smoothly ruthless politician Warwick, Rory Keenan a coldly bureaucratic Inquisitor and Richard Cant plays a hellfire chaplain who is later consumed by guilt for burning an innocent woman.
Saint Joan is on at the Donmar Warehouse until 18th February 2017. Click here for more details.