One of the great debates the UK is currently facing at the moment is the controversial topic of immigration, and on stage at the Courtyard Theatre is the epitome of cultural and racial integration: St Joan. Joan of Arc has received a modern update and now black and Jewish Joan take the audience on a journey back to medieval France.
France is unsettled and its chaos is matched by the decision to have three actors play the same protagonist. Joan, whose accolades marked her as a heroine and saint, is presented to me through trio Samantha Pearl, Juliet Dante and Rachel Halper. The knowledge of Joan’s legacy makes her a commanding presence in history, and the three women successfully demand and earn respect as performers. The intensity required to play such an iconic figure was communicated through Pearl, Dante and Halper’s eyes as they pierced through my soul every time they managed to make a connection with me. This intensity was heightened by the brief break of the fourth wall as the lights unexpectedly shine on the audience and Pearl climbed the steps and engaged in a conversation which did not require nor even care for a response.
Director Katrin Hilbe and writer Julia Pascal collaborate to bring a well-balanced display of several themes: power (as a blessing and curse for women), national identity, and race. Hilbe’s often bold stage direction that saw Joan presented as a sexual commodity and subsequently assaulted, combined with Pascal’s fluent mentions of ‘breasts’ and other female icons from the Queen to Eve, made me appreciate Joan not as a warrior but as a woman. Both Hilbe and Pascal remained true to history in representing Joan, but the focus appears to be heavily emphasised on her position as a woman. Femininity ran throughout the play and was most tantalising during some of the more violent scenes.
All war scenes during St Joan were represented through metal poles and enhanced by soundtracks and effects. Pascal’s use of repetition and chorus chanting, combined with the simplistic use of props, made the depiction of the well-documented violence disturbingly poetic. So peaceful was the scene of Joan recounting her first kill that I became lost in the rhythm of the words and failed to hear the bloody and vicious content.
Joan of Arc was a woman, which is what I understand from this play. Hilbe and Pascal thread this theme so consistently throughout the play that it is near impossible for me to interpret St Joan in any other way. Watching this play on the day of the 2015 General Election might have been coincidental but it is very relevant. The country is trying to secure its national identity for the next five years, and fittingly the final scene of the play exposes misidentification. Joan rides out to intervene in a racially-motivated attack, and, powerful in its ending, St Joan finishes with a chill in the air. This country is struggling to find itself, and the present day we live in looks very similar to the past that has just unfolded in this play.
St Joan played at the Courtyard Theatre. For more information, see the Courtyard Theatre website.