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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Saint Joan
Olivier Theatre 2007

What may well be George Bernard Shaw's finest play is given as exciting and engrossing a production as you could ask for in this first major London revival in decades.

Shaw actually gives us two plays in one here - the girl's-own-adventure story of the rise and fall of Joan of Arc, and a running commentary on what he sees as its larger meanings. The first play is all action and the second all talk, and the remarkable thing is that they are equally dramatic.

Joan's play begins as a string of quick scenes in which she charms or inspires various hardened generals and politicians to give her control of the French army and then delivers the victories she promises. It ends with the extended scene of her trial, in which the French clergy, knowing full well the English are going to burn her anyway, still fight to save her from what they see as her heresy.

Anne-Marie Duff has some problem in the early scenes trying to unify the diverse qualities and personality traits Shaw gives Joan, and settles eventually into a rough peasant common-sense core that sits uneasily with her divine inspiration. Duff comes fully into her own in the trial scene, plumbing all the anguish of Joan being coerced into accepting the unacceptable - that the heavenly voices that inspire her are false.

The trial scene is powerful also because the actors playing the representatives of the Church - Oliver Ford Davies as the Inquisitor, Paterson Joseph as Cauchon and Jamie Ballard as Brother Martin - sustain the ambiguity of their motives and just how sincere or hypocritical their concern for her salvation is.

Meanwhile, Shaw has interspersed the plot scenes with discussions in which, anachronistically, the characters are allowed to view Joan's story through his eyes.

His main points are two - that we really can't tell if she was inspired or deluded, since inspiration would have taken the form of voices and visions (and that, anyway, it wouldn't matter, since the effect on history was the same), and that Joan was unknowingly a locus for larger historical forces.

In a key scene right at the centre of the play, an English earl and a French bishop identify Joan as spearheading the threatening-to-them forces of Nationalism (because she thinks of the loose federation of French-speaking duchies as France) and Protestantism (because she bypasses the Church to take inspiration direct from heaven).

It is a long, static, talky scene, and it is a measure of Shaw's greatness, and of the performances of Angus Wright and Paterson Joseph, that it is fascinating, engrossing and thoroughly dramatic.

All credit to director Marianne Elliott and her large cast for sustaining the unity and the energy level throughout this long play, and a special notice to choreographer Hofesh Shechter for discovering a new and exciting (if perhaps a bit overlong) way of staging a symbolic battle scene.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Saint Joan - National 2007