Joan of Arc is the last instalment in The Faction’s rep season at the New Diorama. The sheer execution of a rep season represents The Faction to a T: delving into nearly forgotten tradition and inflating it with new life and doing so with furious intensity. Not satisfied with simply reinvigorating one classic, as it has with Romeo and Juliet, or even two classics (the subtly spectacular The Talented Mr Ripley), its third, Joan of Arc, presents an entirely new facet to The Faction’s personality as its theatre company fingerprint grows evermore intricate. Quite some feat when using exactly the same cast, directors, stage management and space. I use the term ‘space’ loosely because while The Faction breathes new life into known texts, the New Diorama thoroughly structures the provisions to give such companies life. It is this kind of collaboration that is essential to the success of the company’s productions.
First and foremost The Faction is an ensemble. A tight-knit multitude of talented mechanisms grinding together to make one unshakeable machine. Though all its productions differ greatly in style there is a constant root in this ensemble. For the first time I think that this mark was slightly missed in Joan of Arc as the ethereal Joan (Kate Sawyer) was even more indulged and isolated from the mechanism than even her protagonist label necessitated. Within that though, Sawyer over-spilled with emotional integrity and the latter scenes when her femininity and innocence begin to re-emerge, the humanity of her character drew you in. Joan is a sacrifice, losing her own character and replacing it with war: Sawyer has to craft a non-persona, a physicalisation of God and war and then negotiate that round obstacles and turning points. Such as when she comes face to face with a lone Welsh soldier as he pleads to her femininity and compassion for his life but she opts to kill him. As his lonely, unknown body is dragged anonymously off stage, Joan’s anonymous identity becomes all the more glaringly apparent. She has lost herself completely to her mission and the consequences of that mission have become secondary.
In The Faction’s retelling of Schiller’s version the emphasis is on perception: Joan loses her own identity because of what those around her want to perceive and her own perception of a greater force and what message that greater force is sending her. Historically, Joan’s victories and demises are lost in Chinese whispers, a theme that resonates with the audience who are familiar with war, judgement and a desire for change but are subjected to so many different versions of the same truth. The tagline for this production, ‘a young girl shuns her father’s arranged marriage to fight on the battlefield’, oversimplifies these themes making some way for the subjectivity needed to make this story new.
Rachel Valentine Smith and Mark Leipacher’s direction steers us head first into patriotism and the importance of our own specific space in the world. Joan’s helmet and sword are painted on her hair and skin with clay, symbolising the divide between the earth to which she belongs and the spiritual god she obeys. It also represents the superficiality of both of those things. Not knowing where to belong or behave is a very stylised motif throughout the play, but I wanted more of it. I wanted it to claim more attention and be an iconic part of the production.
For me, the production gravitated around two standout performances: a witty, and charmingly arrogant Burgundy (Christopher Hughes) and some impeccably controlled multi-role-playing from Natasha Rickman, playing both Charles and Isabel. She switched from feistiness, to compassion, to pride, to humour and back round again so casually, maintaining an effortless impressiveness.
The focus of this particular production was laid so heavily on Joan that the integral relationships between the other characters were missed, waning the empathy of the audience. The battle scenes could have done with more of the core ensemble pulling together to build a sense of the epic that The Faction has been known to deliver time and time again. In previous Faction productions I have been so involved, that I feared for my life in fight scenes. The Faction doesn’t play it safe, it’s all or nothing as the audience are held to their seats only by the seat of their pants. It’s dark, innovative and captivating. You don’t have to like it but you certainly can’t ignore it.
Joan of Arc is playing New Diorama Theatre until 28 February. For more information and tickets, see the New Diorama website.