“Something is happening, something ungodly”
Thickly pungent clouds of incense, masses of supernumeraries dressed as glowering monks, the plaintive drone of the organ interrupted only by the dramatic peals of the church bells – there could hardly be a more atmospheric venue for the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain to launch their autumn season. And in Louise Brealey’s debut play Pope Joan, the ecclesiastical setting of St James’s Church in Piccadilly gains an especial resonance given that even now, over 1000 years since the apocryphal medieval story took place, the Church still doesn’t know how to deal with women.
Brealey, perhaps unfairly best known as the wretched Molly in Sherlock, has alighted on the ninth century legend of the only woman ever to have (allegedly) become pope and used it to explore the uneasy interface between gender and religion, the way in which the patriarchy has assumed dominance over society and will do anything to protect, and also the journey of one person’s faith and their struggle to be able to pursue it as their spirit dictates.
Director Paul Hart’s production is awash with ambience and feeling yet though it sets a vividly expressionistic scene, a lack of contextual detail makes earlier scenes a tad confusing. More could be done to differentiate the tangle of churchmen who surround Joan and her rise through the church’s hierarchy is left tantalisingly unexplored. But as the elements of the play coalesce to portray her discovery and downfall, it finds a compelling power and one which is augmented beautifully by intercut scenes of her younger self as she uncovers the joys of reading and religion that the world would hide from her. Choral arrangement of several Antony and the Johnsons songs add another, more contemporary, layer to the questions of gender raised within too, to goose-bumping effect.
Sophie Crawford brims with righteous conviction and later frustration as the titular Joan, determined to preach in her own inimitable way in celebrating rather than hiding the role that women have played in religious life – a speech about Mary Magdalene is cleverly delivered directly to the audience as she clambers up and over pews. Robert Willoughby snarls magnificently as the fiercely ambitious cardinal Anastasius; James Hurst’s Oswyn who develops his own special relationship with the pope is subtly effective; and Sarah Miele as the young Joan radiates fervent enthusiasm. A stirring start indeed to what should be an exciting programme of work over the coming weeks.