It’s not the flames of the heroine’s martyrdom that make the National’s “Saint Joan” such a visceral experience, it’s the blazing theatricality of Marianne Elliott’s production. The audacity of the director’s staging is matched by a command that’s simply thrilling. With a play long regarded by many as both wordy and worthy, this is nothing short of a triumph.
Elliott lays out her vision of the play from the word go. Beneath the shimmering choral voices and echoing hand bells of Jocelyn Pook’s medieval-meets-contemporary score, scaldingly back-lit rows of actors hover in the haze that fills the expectant darkness of a cavernous Olivier stage edged with scorched trees. In beautifully stretched-out time, the cast gracefully dismantles the towering pyre of ecclesiastical chairs at the back of Rae Smith’s raised charcoal-black central platform. Silently, they line up as witnesses and participants in the unfolding of the terrifyingly inevitable action.
For anyone even vaguely conversant with the text, it comes as a sustained but galvanizing shock. George Bernard Shaw’s 1923 drama actually opens with a jocose, domestic scene between a furious squire and his nervous steward, who persuades his master he should see the girl who has stubbornly refused to leave despite two days of waiting.
Following her defining prologue, however, Elliott then proceeds to play the text by the book. Or, rather, her filleted version of the text.
Nothing has been reordered or reworded, but playwright Samuel Adamson has trimmed away the earnest repetitions of Shaw’s text which, uncut, would run more than four hours. The intellectually fierce debates about Joan, her actions and their consequences, remain powerfully intact. What Elliott has done is to contextualize them, bringing Shaw’s fascinating arguments to life.
The director’s vision is completed by Anne-Marie Duff’s mesmerizing Joan. Physically, Duff fits the steward’s description of her as “only a slip of a girl” but her stage power is out of all proportion to her stature.
Armed with an Irish accent that denotes Shaw’s authorial presence as much as it does Joan’s peasant background, Duff radiates the blind zeal of the intransigent teenager Joan actually was. White-hot hope burns off her, silencing opposition.
The consequences of such certainty are made manifest in the superbly charged-up trial scene that brings the play to climax. Confronted with the life-and-death possibility that her “voices” may have been wrong, the previously steadfast Duff upsettingly reveals a fissure of doubt ripping its way up into a yawning chasm that threatens to tear apart her body.
Elliott and Duff pay the playwright the compliment of never confusing the character with the myths that surround her. This Joan is as stubborn, difficult and dangerous as she is “divinely” inspired.
Joan’s intransigence is made expressive by the evocative baldness of the staging. Smith’s central platform revolves and lifts into contrasting, differently angled locations dramatizing the often ungovernable Olivier space. Within them, lighting designer Paule Constable often uses a single spotlight to pick Duff out, placing her in relief against other cast members, frequently silhouetted in frozen tableaux of captured movement.
Duff’s stark interpretation benefits considerably from the production’s boldest stroke. Although Joan lives to fight, Shaw writes no battle scenes. So Elliott provides one.
The entire company is seized with the exultant frenzy of war in vividly stylized action. Chairs are thrashed against the floor; corrugated iron is smashed on the sides of the stage; the score rises to a crescendo of violence as the platform rises to vertiginous height bearing Joan ecstatically aloft. It’s a case of sound and fury signifying everything that Joan’s character believes in. So much so, that the play’s debates are ignited by it.
Instead of seeming like extended debates, the maneuverings of the key political figures are constantly presented in physical relation to people who will be affected by them. The sheer activity of surrounding ensemble scenes gives these closely-argued discussions the quiet, deliberately measured dramatic weight they need.
Angus Wright drips calm authority as a drop-dead droll Earl of Warwick, working the situation to his advantage while building to the seemingly reasonable conclusion that “Her death is a political necessity.” He’s balanced by flashes of humor from Paterson Joseph’s beady Bishop of Beauvais, who seriously wants Joan out of the way.
Oliver Ford Davies relishes the even-handedness of the writing with a fully-rounded Inquisitor, far from the expected bigot. As the fey Dauphin in a tattered cloak, Paul Ready wrings every witty possibility out of the role, coming across as one part unwilling monarch to three parts Rufus Wainwright.
The depth and breadth of these and other characterizations allow the still remarkably modern epilogue to land its punch. Thanks to Elliott’s immaculately thought-through approach, underlined by the quasi-20th century costuming, Shaw’s thoroughly modern military and state parallels resonate through the auditorium.