Have you ever heard voices from unseen beings proffering advice, demanding calls to violent action and blind obedience? Have you ever felt like a man in a woman’s body—seized with the desire to abandon petticoats in favour of chain mail? For some, these delusions may be easily explained away as normal 17-year-old growing pains. For Joan of Arc (1412-31), her oh-so-private conversations with St. Michael, St. Catherine and St. Margaret were so compelling that she abandoned her quiet country life and led her fellow Frenchmen to victory over the dreaded English, resulting in the coronation of Charles VII.
Her unstinting efforts—God at her side—were rewarded with a trial by the Church as a heretic (note to young do-gooders: don’t piss off the Archbishop and the “gentlemen” of England simultaneously—between greed for control of souls and feudal estates, idealistic, honest citizens don’t stand a chance). Found guilty, and faced with burning at the stake, Joan reluctantly recanted and put her mark (she was illiterate) on a scholarly confession.
However, the ever-merciful Church decreed that the impetuous upstart could not go free (note to plea bargainers: the devil’s always in the details) and must spend the rest of her days in prison (wouldn’t want a recurrence of unblessed courage to wreak more havoc with the pious establishment). Faced with purgatory on Earth, Joan opted to take her chances in the hereafter (with a trio of saints and God in her corner, that couldn’t be all bad), so went to her death in flames, clasping a homemade cross to her never-caressed bosom.
She became canonized in 1920. Three years later George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan opened at the Garrick Theater in New York City. At the Shaw, the compelling tale of the unbridled then quashed heroine has come to the footlights in 1981 (directed by Christopher Newton) and 1993 (Neil Munro at the helm). What then could director Jackie Maxwell bring to this oft-played masterpiece in 2007? Lots!
The play’s six scenes and epilogue, which include a heavenly dream sequence as Joan’s sainthood is announced and her supporters and detractors alike are afforded a last word, notably: “The burning was purely political. There was no personal feeling against you, I assure you.” have been moved forward to a WW I battlefield. In order to make that shift of centuries work, the epilogue has been parsed and, similar to Graham Greene’s screenplay for Otto Preminger’s 1957 film version, placed like bookends around the windy scenes.
Most wondrously aided and abetted by Sue Lepage’s larger-than-life regal walls, magical universe of stars and a poignant lone-bare tree (echoing Waiting for Godot)—everything brought to life by Kevin Lamotte’s stellar lighting plot—the visual component could hardly be improved.
Yet the textual reordering was not without risk. To create an unimagined worldliness, an echo-chamber was employed, but it soon grew tiresome to the ear, lessening the impact of light and set.
Kicking off the 2007 proceedings with “Rum, tum trumpledum” must have surprised Shaw devotees (not a criticism in itself), but managed to rob the original’s light and frothy egg-search of its ability to balance the more serious action to come. Finally, the revamped transition to the truncated epilogue mistakenly drew “this-must-be-over” applause from many in the audience as Joan’s future impact is speculated upon.
Tara Rosling as Joan is this year’s Miracle on Queen’s Parade. With appropriately boyish charm and a deliciously naïve approach, no one doubts that voices were heard and that hens-a-laying, winds-a-shifting were mere child’s play for this spiritual powerhouse. Her abilities are such that the men have difficulty keeping up with Rosling’s incessant energy, drive and demeanour. Instead of burning her, much of their delivery should be rekindled and lit.
Curious is Harry Judge as the Dauphin. The King-to-be plays his role more like a Broadway musical (think Spamalot without the coconuts), which gets the laughs but confuses the tone. For the senior clergy, Norman Browning (later the proudly stoic Executioner) and Ben Carlson pontificate effectively (yet here, as with the rest of the “French,” the absence of any accent only serves to add wonder to the English ones). Of their underlings, Peter Krantz descends convincingly to his own madness as Chaplain John de Stogubmer realizes just how gruesome burning-at-the-stake is (“I am in hell for evermore”).
Blair Williams playing Richard, Earl of Warwick is pitch-perfect. He’s the unwavering mouthpiece for Shaw’s pillories of “gentlemen,” feudalism and English arrogance. As he comes to the understanding with the Bishop of Beauvais that Joan’s death would benefit both English nobility and the Catholic Church, Williams offers the solution in a devilishly matter-of-fact tone: “Well, if you will burn the Protestant, I will burn the Nationalist.”
No matter what era, past or future, Saint Joan is set, its message of self-serving compromise in the face of greed will, sadly, continue to ring true forevermore. JWR