London Theater Review: ‘Saint Joan’ With Gemma Arterton

Fisayo Akinade, Gemma Arterton, Matt Bardock, Niall Buggy, Hadley Fraser, Simon Holland Roberts, Arthur Hughes, Rory Keenan, Elliot Levey, Syrus Lowe, Guy Rhys, Jo Stone-Fewings.

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.

Popular on Variety

London Theater Review: 'Saint Joan' With Gemma Arterton

Donmar Warehouse, London; 251 seats; £40 ($50) top. Opened, reviewed Dec. 19, 2016. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Production: A Donmar Warehouse production of a play in two acts by George Bernard Shaw.

Creative: Directed by Josie Rourke; Design, Robert Jones; lighting, Howard Harrison; sound, Chris Shutt; Composer, Michael Bruce; Video, Duncan McLean; Movement, Arthur Pita.

Cast: Fisayo Akinade, Gemma Arterton, Matt Bardock, Niall Buggy, Hadley Fraser, Simon Holland Roberts, Arthur Hughes, Rory Keenan, Elliot Levey, Syrus Lowe, Guy Rhys, Jo Stone-Fewings.

More Legit

  • David-Alan-Grier-Blair-Underwood

    David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood to Star in 'A Soldier's Play' on Broadway

    David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood will star in a Broadway production of Pulitzer-Prize winning drama “A Soldier’s Play.” The play, written by Charles Fuller, is set in 1944 and follows a murder mystery centered around the death of black Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (played by Grier) who is found on a Louisiana army base. [...]

  • The Inheritance review

    'The Inheritance' Announces Broadway Cast

    After an Olivier-winning run in London, “The Inheritance” is gearing up for its Broadway debut. The two-part epic has set the cast for its transfer from the West End to the Great White Way. John Benjamin Hickey, Paul Hilton, Samuel H. Levine, Andrew Burnap and Kyle Soller are among the cast members reprising their roles [...]

  • Patrick Page, Amber Grey, Eva Noblezada,

    'Hadestown' Announces 2020 National Tour

    ‘Hadestown’, the eight-time Tony award winning Broadway musical, is set for a national tour in 2020. The show will stop in more than 30 cities including Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New Orleans, and more. The musical is a stage adaptation of the Greek myths of Orpheus and Eurydice and King Hades and his wife [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Listen: Why Jake Gyllenhaal Is His 'Best Self' in the Theater

    Looking for the best possible version of Jake Gyllenhaal? You’ll find it onstage, according to the actor himself. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “I am my best self when I’m working in the theater,” Gyllenhaal said on the latest episode Stagecraft, Variety’s theater podcast, on which he appeared with Carrie Cracknell, the director of [...]

  • Photo: Jeremy Daniel

    'The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical' Gets Broadway Run

    “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” is Broadway bound. The musical adaptation of the franchise about a teenager who discovers he’s the son of Poseidon hits the Great White Way on Sept. 20 ahead of an Oct. 16 opening night. It comes on the heels of an extensive, nationwide tour that took the show [...]

  • Tom Sturridge Jake Gyllenhaal

    Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge Celebrate 'Sea Wall/A Life' With Star-Studded Opening Night

    A star-studded audience looked on as Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge returned to the stage for their double monologue performance in “Sea Wall/A Life.” Theater-goers and celebs including Anne Hathaway, Tom Hiddleston and John Mulaney gathered in Manhattan’s Hudson Theatre for opening night, celebrating a show tackling grief, birth and death through the eyes of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content