You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.

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

  • Laurie Metcalf, John Lithgow'Hillary and Clinton'

    Why John Lithgow Worried About Starring in Broadway's 'Hillary and Clinton'

    When Lucas Hnath first conceived of “Hillary and Clinton” in 2008, he was writing for and about a very different America. Now, a total reimagining of the show has made its way to Broadway with Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow in the titular roles. At the opening on Thursday night, the cast and creatives talked [...]

  • Three Sisters review

    London Theater Review: 'Three Sisters'

    Ennui has become exhaustion in playwright Cordelia Lynn’s new version of “Three Sisters.” The word recurs and recurs. Everyone on the Prozorov estate is worn out; too “overworked” to do anything but sit around idle. Are they killing time or is time killing them? Either way, a play often framed as a study of boredom [...]

  • Patrick Page, Amber Grey, Eva Noblezada,

    'Hadestown' Took 12 Years to Get to Broadway, but It's More Relevant Than Ever

    When “Hadestown” was first staged as a tiny, DIY theater project in Vermont, those involved could never have predicted that it was the start of a 12-year journey to Broadway — or how painfully relevant it would be when it arrived. At Wednesday night’s opening at the Walter Kerr Theatre, the cast and creatives discussed [...]

  • Hillary and Clinton review

    Broadway Review: Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow in 'Hillary and Clinton'

    If anyone could play Hillary Clinton, it’s Laurie Metcalf – and here she is, in Lucas Hnath’s “Hillary and Clinton,” giving a performance that feels painfully honest and true. And if anyone could capture Bill Clinton’s feckless but irresistible charm, that would be John Lithgow – and here he is, too. Who better to work [...]

  • Hadestown review

    Broadway Review: 'Hadestown'

    “Hadestown” triggered a lot of buzz when this wholly American show (which came to the stage by way of a concept album) premiered at Off Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop in 2016. Arriving on Broadway with its earthly delights more or less intact, this perfectly heavenly musical — with book, music and lyrics by Anaïs [...]

  • Burn This review

    Broadway Review: Adam Driver, Keri Russell in 'Burn This'

    The ache for an absent artist permeates Lanford Wilson’s “Burn This,” now receiving a finely-tuned Broadway revival that features incendiary performances by Adam Driver and Keri Russell, playing two lost souls in a powerful and passionate dance of denial. AIDS is never mentioned in this 1987 play, yet the epidemic and the profound grief that [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content