With Amanda Plummer directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg on a Eugene Lee set in a play about a high-strung young female who hears heavenly voices, one would be forgiven for thinking the Stratford Festival has mounted a revival of “Agnes of God,” the 1982 play that won Plummer her first Tony Award. However, something quite different is happening here. The production of Jean Anouilh’s “The Lark” this trio have devised is a tough-minded but engaging piece of theater likely to appeal to the public both at Stratford and on the road, should touring possibilities emerge.
Anouilh’s 1953 play tells the story of Joan of Arc in this author’s typical style — full of flashbacks, anachronistic references and direct address to the audience. The potentially precious nature of this approach is mitigated here by Lillian Hellman’s adaptation, which is every bit as tart and terse as might be expected.
The ground the script covers is not unlike that in versions of the story by Shaw, Anderson and others. Innocent girl hears voices from God, leads the French army to victory over the English, only to be imprisoned and burned as a witch.
Her trial is always the most interesting part of the saga, and this whole script is, in fact, set during and after the trial, with re-creations of her story taking up the rest of the space.
The underlying thrust of Anouilh’s original was an examination of those who collaborate and those who resist when a country is occupied — issues very much on his mind after WWII.
But the author’s original intent was to leave those resonances as subtext while presenting the play in 15th century trappings.
Lindsay-Hogg has decided to let it all hang out, and his production is unapologetically set in occupied France, circa 1944. There’s concertina music playing and a country priest riding a bicycle as well as a jackbooted Nazi officer on crutches who looks not unlike Dr. Strangelove.
But somehow, it all works. Lindsay-Hogg’s instinct has been a good one. In stripping away the 15th century accouterments, the author’s intent shines through clearly, making the debate about what constitutes heresy ring out on several levels.
Not only can we hear Anouilh questioning the morality of those French who assisted the Nazis, but there’s a strong streak of Hellman’s voice, probing the motives of those who had recently named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Plummer heads a strong cast with confidence. This performance breaks no new ground for her, but she does tone down some of the mannerisms that have marred her work in the past.She opts for a quiet quirkiness that blazes out in lines like “What I’ve done, I won’t renounce, and what I am, I won’t deny.” Best of all, she achieves pathos without playing for it.
Stratford veteran Martha Henry turns in a chilling turn as the Inquisitor, with a frosty demeanor playing nicely against her liquid Spanish accent.
Other company stalwarts such as Bernard Hopkins, Graham Abbey and Stephen Ouimette turn in work that’s above even their usual high standard, a clear tribute to Lindsay-Hogg’s direction.There’s also a wonderful characterization from Steven Sutcliffe (best known as Younger Brother in the original “Ragtime”) as Charles the Dauphin, turning him into a petulantly preppy boy instead of the usual grotesque.
Production values are solid but simple, indicating the show may have been conceived with a tour in mind. It certainly makes a fine comeback for Plummer, largely absent from the stage for the past decade, and would serve as a nice calling card for the company in some major North American venues.