The Theatreguide.London Review
Donmar Theatre Winter 2016-2017
Shaw's St Joan is actually two separate plays running side by side and vying for our attention. Josie Rourke's production does full justice to both, while sometimes having trouble making them seem like parts of the same work.
One story is the adventure of Joan, the perhaps not-so-simple country girl filled with religious zeal and the conviction of her own right, who ploughs through any doubts or opposition to lead France to victory, until the combined forces of church and state feel obliged to destroy her.
Gemma Arterton is the most vital, protean and personally attractive Joan I've ever seen. She can switch in a blink from being open and girlish to consciously manipulative, from being in the throes of religious ecstasy to debating with the irrefutable logic of an intellectual.
Arterton not only makes all these faces of Joan believable and immensely attractive, but convinces us that they are all part of the same character.
So enticing is this Joan's energy and personality that the one moment in the whole play that doesn't quite ring true is her collapse into despair and recantation near the end of the play, which comes too abruptly for Arterton to integrate the reversal into her characterisation.
The other play within Shaw's play is a series of footnotes to the story, scenes in which the action pauses while characters discuss the larger meanings of Joan's adventure.
Shaw's greatest achievement as a playwright – the essence of the adjective Shavian – is his ability to make the discussion of ideas dramatic and as theatrically alive as any scenes of action.
Midway through St Joan he sends Joan offstage for an audaciously extended scene of pure talk, as an English lord and a French bishop discuss the threats she poses to the established political and ecclesiastic order, helping us understand why (in Shaw's eyes) she had to be destroyed.
In anyone else's hands the disappearance of the most personable and attractive figure while two secondary characters just sit at a table and talk would be a theatrical mis-step from which the play might not recover.
But so interesting are the ideas and so dynamic the debate that this scene is as engrossing as any of the more action-based ones.
The same is true of the climactic trial scene, in which Shaw makes the theological issues and the complex and conflicting motives of the churchmen deciding Joan's fate as much the focus of our attention and emotional involvement as anything Joan goes through, and of a half-dozen briefer pauses for the play to comment on itself.
Director Rourke and designer Robert Jones have set the play in modern dress, with TV reports on Joan's victories and ticker-tape commentary on the economic and political repercussions.
At best this is no sillier than most directorial updatings, though it seems particularly wrong for a play that is not only steeped in a medieval sensibility but is largely about the seismic cultural shifts of its specific time and place.
With Arterton's Joan leading the way, the whole cast is first-rate, with particularly strong contributions by Jo Stone-Fewings, Elliot Levey, Rory Keenan and Niall Buggy.
Receive alerts every time we post a new review