“You can’t slaughter what you cannot kill”
In amongst everything else that the Faction do, they’re also steadily working their way through Friedrich Schiller’s plays with the aim of staging the complete canon of his work. I’ve seen them take on Mary Stuart, Fiesco and The Robbers in recent years but their 2015 rep season features Joan of Arc, a free adaptation of The Maid of Orleans which was one of his most frequently performed plays during his lifetime. Its fiercely militaristic tone speaks to its popularity back then but the Faction, playing very much to their strengths in this thrilling and thoughtful version, make a sterling case for its pertinence today.
The play tells its own variation on Joan’s life – one could hardly argue it is historically inaccurate – which repositions La Pucelle as a defiantly active warrior in the Dauphin’s forces as the French Crown struggles against the combined forces of the Duke of Burgundy and Henry VI of England. That she was a peasant girl who received religious visions only added to her allure when her talismanic presence proved decisive in turning the military tide but the natural suspicion of anything different, combined with Joan’s internal dilemmas about the validity of her spirituality, allows the seeds to be sown for her downfall (even if it plays out in an unexpected manner).
Co-directed by Mark Leipacher and Rachel Valentine Smith, Joan of Arc feels like the most ‘Faction’-like of the three productions this year and it is all the better for it. Though still containing a leading role, the work of the ensemble feels threaded through the very skin of the production in a much more essential way than Ripley demonstrated and thus it pulses much more interestingly and excitingly. Natasha Rickman does devilish double duty as both the Dauphin and his haughty mother Queen Isabel, Christopher Tester finds fervent ferocity in characters as diverse as Joan’s father and an English lord, Tom Brownlee also stands out in his roles.
The physical work stands out too, especially when Chris Withers’ lighting comes to the fore. With the set design purposefully spare, the company twist themselves into whatever shape is needed, creating some beautifully stark imagery – the gnarled branches of the tree where Joan sees her visions, the slow-motion combat of the numerous battles, the chains of her English prison. The key external addition is handfuls of the French clay through which her family toil, the land her troops defend, and which when moulded around Kate Sawyer’s head, become the helmet that signifies Joan’s transformation – a powerfully inventive tool which underscores a powerfully intense performance from Sawyer. The show of the season for the Faction this year.