George Bernard Shaw was adamant that “there are no villains” in his play “Saint Joan.” Those who wrongly convicted Joan of Arc on heresy charges did so in good faith, he contended. But director Josie Rourke isn’t so sure. Though she stops short of blaming individuals, the twist in her Donmar Warehouse revival points a firm finger at a patriarchal system. Muddling a medieval religious order with a modern economic one, she suggests the world is run by a backwards boys’ club that only believes its own. Gemma Arterton’s Joan, luminous if lightweight, averts a financial crisis only to find herself fired — or something like that. Rourke’s historical merger makes it all rather confusing.
We’re in the world of markets and big data, yet all the talk is of God and war. Both, it’s clear, are driven by creeds and competition, but the disjuncture of what we see and what we hear onstage takes some computing. On screen, a Bloomberg newsman reports on a shock worldwide egg shortage that’s sent the Loire 100 skyrocketing. Two footsoldiers of the financial sector, one clutching a huge energy drink, fret for their stock when in steps Arterton with a plan of action. She wants to lead a company of men herself. Think of her as Joan of Markets.
Played out around a long glass board table on a slow revolve, this is a man’s world that goes round in circles. Arterton is the only woman onstage and she butts up against a patriarchal system. She starts in an old peasant’s smock, surrounded by men in sharp suits who dismiss her successes as fraud, witchcraft or luck — anything but admit that a woman might be right or receiving God’s words. As the play proceeds, the male order retreats — clergymen replace moneymen — and Joan cuts an increasingly contemporary figure. By the time she’s charged with heresy, she’s kitted out like Lara Croft, a futuristic fighter cut down by the old order. The truth she speaks is at odds with everything her (male) judges believe.
There’s meaning in the modern setting, for sure. The trouble is we’re still stuck with Shaw’s play and the two don’t sync up. Joan is battling on behalf of the Dauphin, but if Fisayo Akinade’s young pajama-clad monarch leads a corporation, not a country, it’s not entirely clear who Joan’s fighting against — the English or some corporate rival? It’s even less obvious where God fits into the boardroom, and why exactly Joan ends up on trial. She’s judged by a clerical committee for actual heresy, but the secular setting implies something metaphorical: defying the foundations of finance or upsetting the patriarchal order. Which is it? Rourke slides between both.
Shaw always sided with dialectics over drama, but even so Rourke never manages to tap into the urgency of his arguments. There’s rarely anything at stake: not France, not finance, not faith. Since Shaw’s rhetoric doesn’t sit well with reality, his characters struggle in contemporary settings. The two worlds — medieval and modern — kind of co-exist, but mostly they jar. It makes for characterful supporting performances that just don’t cohere. Niall Buggy is an ardent archbishop, who just doesn’t belong in the boardroom, while Rory Keenan’s Inquisitor is a rational force who sits oddly before a jury in dog collars.
Arterton herself never finds Joan’s ferocity. More nymph than insurgent, she floats through the action when she ought to burn through it. She’s too strictly saintly to be the holy warrior Shaw wrote, and too politely feminist to hack it in a contemporary world of alpha bankers. It’s a mark of a simplistic perspective: one that damns the old, male order and everything it believes in and blankly advocates its opposite.