Saint Joan @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Anne-Marie Duff
Oliver Ford Davies
Paterson Joseph
Angus Wright
Paul Ready
Jamie Ballard
James Barriscale
Simon Bubb
Finn Caldwell

directed by
Marianne Elliot
Though regarded by some as an old warhorse of a play, Saint Joan may well be Shaws finest achievement. As well as his usual witty and thought-provoking discussion of complex ideas, there is an uncharacteristic poignancy surrounding the protagonist which takes the play beyond the cerebral. And Marianne Elliotts visually rich and animated production breathes new life into Shaws wordy masterpiece so that its essential humanity shines through.

The story of Joan, a simple young peasant girl from Domremy, leading the French army to victory against the English at Orleans during the Hundred Years War, and then later being burnt as a witch, is well known. But Shaw explores the intricacies behind the historical events with irreverent and perceptive humour, bringing alive the conflict of interests and personalities. And with such an emotionally intense central performance from Anne-Marie Duff, the work also takes on a tragic dimension.

This is certainly not a talking heads show. That is made clear right from the start with a five-minute speechless prologue, as the cast emerge from the shadows of the surrounding blasted trees and slowly take one chair from a huge pile of chairs and sit either side of a raised platform on top of the Oliviers revolving stage, in Rae Smiths striking design. This anticipates the ending when the court tries Joan for witchcraft and heresy, with the chairs forming her pyre as she is burnt at the stake. All are complicit in her death.

This is Shaw performed as physical theatre, with ritualized choreography and stylized action sequences, without undermining the intellectual content of the work. The lifting of the siege of Orleans is a tour de force, with tilted platform used to dynamic effect and the cast beating rhythmically on corrugated iron walls, while the trial scene is awash with movement after Joan emerges hooded and shackled from below stage to face her persecutors, and her martyrdom is staged with emblematic beauty. Jocelyn Pooks evocative, Celtic-style music contributes much to the atmosphere too.

The mixture of medieval and modern dress works well, suggesting contemporary relevance without losing the historical context: Joan died in 1431 but was not canonized by the Roman Catholic Church until 1920, three years before the play was first performed and, Shaw suggests that such an uncompromisingly iconoclastic figure would still be regarded as a threat 500 years later by both the religious and secular establishment. The bishops abhorred Joans claim that the voices in her head gave her a hotline with God, with no ecclesiastical intermediary necessary, while the barons feared that her blatant disregard for the class system was inimical to their way of life.

Marianne Elliots persuasive interpretation reinforces this idea of Joan as a rebel against the status quo, who despite their differences were united in their desire to suppress her dangerous free spirit. Giving Joan an Irish accent reinforces the colonial theme, and she is presented as much as a freedom-fighter against an occupying force as a religious fanatic. Making the production end as it started, with Joan about to begin her quest, gives a strong cyclical impression that visionaries such as Joan will continue to be martyred by a world not ready for their message.

Anne-Marie Duffs mesmerizing performance shows us a multi-faceted and contradictory Joan: nave yet shrewd, both confident and vulnerable, brave in battle but afraid of torture, this is a very human saint who inspires as much pity as admiration.

Paul Ready gives a wickedly funny turn as the sulky teenage Dauphin, by turns cowardly and malicious. Angus Wright is an amusingly urbane Earl of Warwick, with an Anglo-Saxon phlegmatic approach to murder. Paterson Joseph also impresses as the Bishop of Beauvais who wants to save Joans soul by taking away her individuality, and. Oliver Ford Davies lends his accustomed air of authority to the equivocal Inquisitor who has become accustomed to burning its all over very soon.

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