If a director is going to have a signature style, he needs to know when its inappropriate. Take Brit helmer Gregory Thompson. He uses his troupe AandBC to create highly physical shows with improvised blocking that make direct contact with the audience. And while that visceral approach may be ideal for some scripts, it is anathema to Shaw’s “Saint Joan.” A tightly structured, passionately intellectual debate about moral and political commitment, the play is meant to ignite our spirits by way of our brains, and Thompson’s approach only muddles its thinking.
Writing in 1923, three years after the Catholic Church finally made Joan of Arc (Louise Collins) a saint, Shaw makes each scene an energizing argument between individual freedom (Joan) and the power of established authority (Catholic ministers and feudal lords).
Though he eventually sides with the Maid of Orleans, who said God commanded her to lead French armies against the British, he makes her opponents as articulate as she is. The Church and the nobles burn Joan as a heretic, but just like her, they act out of deeply held beliefs. The play proves that conviction can create tragedy as easily as triumph.
Masterfully delivered, the script’s long, rhetorical speeches double as first-rate entertainment, and even in this production, Shaw’s wit remains evident.
But Thompson too seldom trusts Shaw to reach us without his help. For almost four hours, actors rarely stand still and speak. Rather, they flit madly about the stage, picking random moments to address the crowd, leap on each other’s backs, or climb under tables.
Since AandBC’s mission statement says it wants to make “profound texts accessible,” this hustle and bustle is probably supposed to assure us that dense ideas can be exciting and sexy. However, the loose blocking only leads to undisciplined work.
Instead of finding the subtle emphasis in Shaw’s writing, actors mostly shout their lines. Instead of making their movements reflect some aspect of a character or a scene, they rely on stock gestures. Whenever Joan is upset, for instance, Collins throws both arms in front of her, palms up, and then jerks them down again. It’s an empty move that says she doesn’t know what to do with her hands.
Nuance also suffers because actors perform in the round; when they turn their back on part of the crowd, they don’t speak loudly enough to be heard. (At least the spurned auds can focus on Ellen Cairns’ clever set. With nothing more than a drop cloth and some pulleys, she creates a tent, a battlefield, and the throne room of a French king.)
In another inscrutable choice, Thompson starts with the play’s epilogue, in which the ghosts of various characters explain what they have learned. He stages it as a modern-day rehearsal. Thesps sit around in street clothes, and one monologue is interrupted by a performer’s cell phone. Another gets cut off when an actor barges in late.
This move begs us to see the play in modern terms, but the epilogue’s statements have less meaning if we haven’t already met the characters. Besides, Shaw asserts the play’s relevance himself when he sends a ghost from the 20th century to explain how Joan’s legacy has survived.
That speech, though, is the one interrupted by a latecomer, meaning Shaw’s statement takes a backseat to the director’s.