Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Saint Joan

By George Bernard Shaw
Olivier Theatre

George Bernard Shaw’s take on Joan of Arc is a lengthy and wordy piece of drama; and perhaps not one that would appeal to a 21st century audience. In the event the play proved to be a robust survivor whose arguments still carry a force and relevance.

Shaw tells the story of Joan’s re-invigoration of the French army during the 100 years war and her subsequent capture by the British and her trial for heresy.

What is striking is that Shaw gives all sides of the debate a seemingly equal voice and appears to leave it up to the audience to decide which view point they find the most sympathetic or compelling.

The stage is a black revolving and elevating square. It is used to particularly good effect in battle scenes - and the practice of doing battle as movement or dance, accompanied by music is particularly engaging and powerful. It seems far more effective than conventional stage fighting in a production like this.

It is also effective in some of the long drawn out debating scenes as the stage slowly revolves giving us different perspectives on the protagonists and by implication on their arguments. It also allays some of the longeurs a static performance might induce.

The performances of the large cast are universally good, with Anne-Marie Duff outstanding in the title role. Paterson Joseph is a memorable Bishop of Beauvais, while Paul Ready’s whining, comic Dauphin and Angus Wright’s urbane, manipulative and hypocritical Earl of Warwick give excellent support.

The burning of Joan atop a pile of chairs (chairs that had also been used in the battle scenes) is strikingly effective. The epilogue of recanting characters is also amusingly apposite.

Altogether St Joan is superbly staged; the incidental music by Jocelyn Pook does a brilliant job of conveying a sense of the alien yet familiar.

Those going to the Olivier expecting Shaw to be too wordy and possibly too dull for the 21st century would have been proved wrong by Marianne Elliot’s excellent production

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