Review: Saint Joan, National Theatre

With Saint Joan, George Bernard Shaw took the well-known story of Joan of Arc, a young peasant girl eventually sainted, who led the French army to victory against the English during the Hundred Years War and was repaid for her trouble by being declared a witch and burnt at the stake since she believed that she was being guided by the voice of God in her head, and created an all-too-human story filling in the gaps in the history with tales of conflicting institutions, personality clashes and a keen sense of humour of what her life must have been like.

The play is remarkably even-handed in that it presents all sides of the argument and never really comes down on the side of either Joan or her oppressors. There are no goodies and baddies here, just a girl who believes God is speaking to her and the machinery of Church and State who will do anything to ensure their power remains stable: Shaw’s message is that uncontrolled individualism threatens the established order and is rarely tolerated.

As Joan, Anne-Marie Duff is really rather fabulous. Crop-haired and elfin-like, she balances the conviction of her belief that she is divinely inspired with the fragility of a girl clearly out of her depth, naïve in some ways yet shrewd in others, at times self-assured and yet vulnerable and is utterly convincing on all counts: Duff never lets us forget that it is a girl we are watching, not a saint. Supporting her is a raft of fine men, each delivering powerful performances as in each of their own ways, they abandon Joan. Oliver Ford Davies’ authoritative Inquisitor, calm and dispassionate even in the face of delivering a sentence of burning; Paul Ready, petulant and ultimately vicious as the Dauphin; Angus Wright as the slippery Warwick, anxious to ensure that the state is not affected by anything and willing to deal with anyone to guarantee it.

I haven’t seen much physical theatre at all so I was quite impressed by how inventive the approach to staging this was. The tilted, rotating stage with chairs lining each side meant that everything that happened was being witnessed by everyone, giving it a really organic ensemble feel rather than the sense that this was a one-woman show. The recreation of the battle involved beating on metal walls which gave an unexpected visceral pulse and the piling up of the chairs to make the pyre on which Joan met her demise made for great symbolism. The evocative original music and costumes inspired by both modern-day military wear and medieval outfits only served to further enhance the experience.

Saint Joan was an absolute pleasure to watch: refreshingly different, highly atmospheric and ultimately very moving. It is impeccably acted with a sterling central turn from Anne-Marie Duff and a considerably talented ensemble. Great stuff.

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