In case you didn’t know, Joan of Arc was born in 1412 in a small village in rural France. As she grew up, she claimed to experience visions of Saint Catherine, Saint Margaret, and the Archangel Michael, and began acting upon their instructions to help recover France from English domination. She played a crucial role during the Hundred Years’ War and helped Charles VII to be crowned; boosting morale and paving the way for the French victory. Despite being hailed a heroine, she was captured and handed over to the English, who gave her a trial but ultimately burned her at the stake in 1431 at the age of 19. She was eventually found innocent some 25 years later, and made a martyr by Pope Callixtus III.
Saint Joan is George Bernard Shaw’s account of her short life and trial; first staged in New York in 1923. It’s described as his ‘only tragedy’, but with no clear hero or villain, Shaw prompts us to consider how easy it is for seemingly good people to do bad things. Written in the wake of the Suffragette movement, Shaw was influenced by the plight of women and the rise of feminism when composing this play. As Joan wails in the final scene “Must I burn again? Are none of you ready to receive me?”, Shaw is asking us if Joan were alive today, what would we do with her? Josie Rourke’s contemporary production cleverly modernises Joan’s story through attentive choices – be it set design or actors.
Gemma Arterton is a force to be reckoned with – powerful, commanding and immovable, yet still pure and angelic as determined young Joan. As Joan, she sounds completely insane, and it’s difficult to sympathise with her when she talks of the ‘voices’ she hears. But Arterton gives her so much confidence, so much wholesome appeal that she is hard to resist. Fisayo Akinade makes an irritatingly self-involved, but somehow likeable, Dauphin. Niall Buggy also delivers a memorable performance as the stern archbishop, while Richard Cant plays a blithering and furious de Stogumber, waving around an issue of the Daily Mail and ironically warning us of the dangers of Nationalism.
The cast are dressed entirely in modern clothes, save for Joan, who initially appears in medieval women’s clothing before appearing again with cropped hair and in men’s armour of chain mail and a breastplate. A decision presumably made to highlight her isolation and suggest that while men have moved forward with time, Joan hasn’t. Preserved forever in martyrdom.
The set was simple – a boardroom-style glass table and fancy leather swivel chairs. The screen behind the stage brought the stage to life however, as it was used to project the stock market prices, conference calls over Skype, and news reports which all accumulate to portray the men of the piece as modern – the stock brokers, investment bankers and businessmen of today. Everything is brought forward in time, apart from Joan. And when she is, appearing in the final scene in a chic red trench coat, she is denied in the same way as she was almost 600 years before.
Josie Rourke’s production presents Joan as Shaw intended, using her story to comment on modern feminism. The modern city staging while clever, was at times slightly off-putting. It did, however, succeed in emphasising Joan’s loneliness as a visionary, lunatic, intelligent strategist, or natural leader. Whatever your view of her, we can all agree that the story of Saint Joan is a tragedy; one that we can still learn from today.
Saint Joan is playing at the Donmar Warehouse until 18 February 2017. For more information and tickets, see Donmar Warehouse.