Every now and then, history throws up rare, peculiar or simply amazing characters that the rest of us find difficult if not impossible to comprehend. Their stories are remembered down the generations not only because they were extraordinary but because they add some kind of meaning to our own lives, even if we can't readily see how and even if we would find them difficult if not impossible to live alongside.
One such amazing character was Jeanne d'Arc, or as we English call her, Joan Of Arc - which sounds rather like someone's ageing auntie from Neasden who spends all her days knitting dishcloths or tea cosies. Not that there's anything wrong with knitting, or being aged, or living in Neasden, or being called Joan! It just sounds a little English to be the name of a French heroine who distinguished herself in military campaigns, if you follow my drift. Still, I'll tow the line and follow the 'Anglais' in the rest of what follows.
In the 14th and 15th centuries, the French and the English were at war on and off for over a hundred bitter and wretched years - the so called 'Hundred Years' War'. In fact it wasn't so much the English versus the French, but rather French versus French because the protagonists were descended from the same line of French Kings. But, by the early 15th century national identities were beginning to develop, and Bogged down in fighting, the French were going nowhere, and their latest king remained uncrowned. Out of the blue, up pops a 17 year old, uneducated, country girl with no military training of any kind claiming to have heard voices from God and an assortment of Angels, telling her to go and lead the French in battle against the English and boot them out of the country (sound familiar at all?). That might seem an unlikely event (or not), but what's even more unlikely is that she did indeed lead the French armies to a number of critical successes and managed to have the king crowned at Reims. However, Joan's military successes irritated not only the English but also the French as well as the Catholic church, and she was duly captured by the English and put on trial for heresy.
Written by George Bernard Shaw and first performed in 1923, Saint Joan was last performed at the Olivier theatre in 1984 with Frances de la Tour as Saint Joan. Now I'm not a great fan of Shaw's work. Last year, I saw 'You Never can Tell' which almost sent me to sleep. But Saint Joan is a different kind of Shavian play - I don't think I'm the only person who thinks it's his best, and I would think it's his most successful, apart perhaps from Pygmalion (which, of course, became the highly successful musical 'My Fair Lady')
No inkling of boredom in this production, because even though Marianne Elliott's 'Saint Joan' is rather long, it never drags thanks to excellent direction of an ensemble that enthralls us with very moving, powerful and at times very funny performances. But the key to the success of any production of this play is the capability of the lead. Here it's Ann-Marie Duff who has the challenge of portraying the simple country girl who not only had considerable courage but also rather more intellectual skill than her captors had judged and more than her meagre learning may have indicated.
Blinding white light focused on the audience before the start of the performance may create atmosphere, but it's not exactly beneficial for the retina. I might have been sitting in just the wrong place, but I found I was squinting for the first 10 minutes of the play as a result. Enormous shafts of white light focused down on the stage through clouds of the mandatory smoke effect is a central feature in Rae Smith's simple but effective design. Apart from lighting, it largely consists of a huge turntable stage and a large number of chairs, all surrounded by a forest of numerous dead trees, symbolising the war that has ravaged the French countryside and economy. Apart from the white light, much of the mood of Elliott's production is created with atmospheric music and some incredibly haunting singing.
Duff is simply exceptional as Saint Joan. Diminutive though she is, she has the exuberant charisma that makes her stand out as someone who's truly extraordinary – even if you can't quite get to the point of believing that she hears the voice of God (though you might). Duff takes us smoothly through the development of the character from simple country lass with a vision at the start of the piece, on to the confident and somewhat aggressive military heroine and finally to the dejected, demoralised prisoner who still can't deny her voices when she realises that to save herself form her persecutors will mean she'll be imprisoned for the rest of her life. The trial scene is both highly charged and riveting thanks to the assistance of the ever-excellent Oliver Ford Davies as the Inquisitor, and a very fine performance by Paterson Joseph as Peter Cauchon. Also of note in this exceptional ensemble was Angus Wright as the Earl of Warwick, whose polished and relaxed political style leant some much needed humour to events.
For me, this play is not so much about power hungry politicians, a corrupt church or even injustice. What it all boils down to is the insignificance of the individual when they appear to present a challenge to power or orthodoxy. Obviously, Bernard Shaw had an eye for a compelling story and powerful characters, but I remain totally unconvinced by Shaw's contention that there are no 'villains' in his play. True, they may be reasonable villains who take the view that there's nothing else they can do, that their hands are tied, or whatever. However, they're still villains, even if they had good excuses and acted reasonably, or even as the most perfect of gentlemen.
Born in 1412, Jeanne d'Arc was burnt at the stake at the age of just 19. Apparently Shaw said that if she were to appear in the England of his day, she'd be treated 'with no more toleration' than she was in her own day. That's an incredibly sad and miserable view of the human condition, reinforced by the ashes that fall on the audience at the end of Marianne Elliotts' moving and compelling production. As we brushed ourselves down on leaving the auditorium, perhaps a few of us gave just a thought for charismatic individuals who do society no wrong, but remain an intolerable threat because they don't think or act like the rest of us.
What the popular had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "The play...stokes up a genuine theatrical blaze." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "It is intellectually vigorous, visually exciting and boasts a glowing performance from Anne-Marie Duff." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Superb production the play proves entertaining, touching and provocatively topical." HEATHER NEILL for THE STAGE says, "Anne-Marie Duff, slight and girlish, is perfectly cast." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Elliott’s production has the pace, energy and articulacy that the play needs. And in Anne-Marie Duff it has a striking heroine."