How extraordinarily coincidental that new Artistic Director Tim Carroll’s maiden production in that capacity for the Shaw Festival comes just days after the grisly Manchester bombings and mere hours before the Toronto Star’s exposé of American-trained Iraqi commandos employing torture in the ongoing struggle for Mosul.
The starkly produced tale (featuring a preponderance of black and white from costumes to a huge, moveable cube and column—courtesy of designers Judith Bowden and Kevin Lamotte), of the rise, fall, death and afterlife of Joan [of Arc] provided more moments of unease than the powerful debates that fuelled the playwright’s superbly crafted text. On several occasions, the ensemble performs a cappella (e.g., “Kyrie Eleison”) to reinforce the religious piety; let’s hope that the pitch accuracy—particualry in the upper reaches—becomes much more secure over the course of the run.
In the title role, Sara Topham is convincing in her belief that divine voices guide her every move and that the wicked English can be trounced because God is on the side of the French. Yet her delivery and especially second-half costume stretches credibility for one who is supposed to be illiterate and revel in wearing men’s clothing; too polished in the former, more feminine in the latter.
In the classic confrontation between Protestants [England] and Catholics [France] must we come to believe that there are two Gods and one of them is better than the other? As religious fanatics are also convinced that they are also doing their gods’ work causing murder, mayhem and madness virtually everywhere, it is difficult to fathom who are the “good guys and the bad guys” even as the “fight against terror” kills or maims vulnerable and innocent lives.
Joan is at first reviled as her miracles mount up, leading to the coronation of Charles VII (Wade Bogert-O’Brien is practical, cunning and regal as required). But her powers become a threat to the church, stoically led by Benedict Campbell’s performance as the Archbishop of Rheims— egged on in his duty by Jonathan Tan’s spot-on nattering as La Trémouille (later as Canon de Courcelles) along with Graeme Somerville’s nuanced portrayal of the Bishop of Beauvais, Karl Ang’s appropriately mean-spirited rendering of Chaplain John de Stogumber and Jeff Meadows (the soul of shallow piety, much to his chagrin) as Canon d’Estivet (doing double duty as Bertrand de Poulengey). Spouting lines such as “My voices do not tell me to disobey the Church; but God must be served first” guarantee Joan a visit to the executioner (Steven Sutcliffe in fine form) who must light the pyre only to discover the heart will not burn.
Speaking shamelessly for the aristocracy, Richard, Earl of Warwick (a wonderfully pragmatic and self-serving take by Tom McCamus) fears for his wealth and position if Joan is allowed to live and inspire the fellow commoners to rebel and convince the king that he should report only to God. The notion of keeping monarchs under control and the similarities of barons and cardinals holding power over the masses brings the sworn rivals together under the banner of privilege and greed.
During the trial, The Inquisitor (Jim Mezon with a steady, no-nonsense tone) is a model of fairness, eventually leading Joan to recant and “place her mark” on the confession of her sins. But when she realizes that the rest of her days will be spent locked up (purposely away from public view, all the better for Poo-bahs to remain in control), she is ready for sudden death rather than eternal solitude on earth.
As is well known, she is cleared in absentia at a re-trial 25 years later, then canonized in 1920. Shaw imaginatively gives her the last word in a dream sequence: ”O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to accept thy saints?” But which God is she talking to and how many vulnerable and innocent people did her miraculous victories send to an early grave? JWR