Representing real historic characters on stage can be a difficult thing and while accuracy is neither here nor there, there is often a need at least to stay true to the spirit and significance of the events and people portrayed. And many of the plays we associate with history’s “heroes” were themselves written hundreds of years after the acts they depict, giving us layer upon layer of interpretation to unravel, often revealing more about the time in which the play was written than the period in which it is set.
From Shakespeare’s Henry V or Richard II to Schiller’s Mary Stuart, recently revived at The Almeida, our fascination with ‘great’ men and women of history remains. There’s something about the nature of heroism, about being an extraordinary person in ordinary or difficult times that appeals to us. And the latest production of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, starring Gemma Arterton currently playing at the Donmar Warehouse, emphasises our heroine’s ‘otherness’ in a world of corporate men, but her separation from the pack first marks her out for success before ultimately becoming her undoing.
And in a way this is also where the production falls down, with Arterton shouldering the burden of a concept that doesn’t really work. Set in both the past and the present, the warring factions of France are transformed into a series of shareholder boardrooms worrying about the price of eggs while a war against the English rages around them. Into this strange environment comes peasant girl Joan, dressed throughout in medieval garb, claiming to be led by the voices of the saints who speak to her and assure her of victory if she leads the French army. But with victory comes suspicion and doubt as Joan’s voices lead to accusations of heresy.
Like many of Shakespeare’s war plays, much of the action in Shaw’s Saint Joan happens off-stage so we never really see the battles and dramas that are discussed. In its place are a series of rather knotty debates about strategy, politics and religion that frame the story and propel the plot. To sustain an audience’s attention for up to four hours (thankfully two hours 45 minutes in this case) is quite a challenge for a director and whatever set-up they choose has to clarify these complex discussions while making the off-stage action seem likely and dynamic.
Here the Donmar’s production somewhat fails to create a scenario that gives full reign to the ambiguities of Shaw’s play. In the first half we move between various board members sat around a glass table worrying what to do about the war with the English as video screens show the rise and fall of the stock market behind them, occasionally interspersed with newsreaders narrating the overarching story. And while on paper this should create interesting modern resonances for us, unfortunately, this idea just lacks dynamism on stage.
Because it is such a wordy play a lot rests on the urgency and danger that these conversations create, and whether Joan is a saviour or madwoman should be a question mark throughout the play – and this is how Arterton plays it. But the banker-set not only comes pre-loaded with overtones that immediately set the audience against them, but its static presentation drains the action of its drama. Looking around the auditorium a couple of sleeping audience members and a few empty seats at the start of part two are a sure sign that something here isn’t working well enough.
But if you stay past the interval as the stockholders give way to the clerics, all that changes and suddenly the play gathers considerable forward momentum as the question of Joan’s heresy is debated with a fervour and urgency missing in other areas of the production. The collection of priests, led by visiting inquisitor Rory Keenan and Elliott Levey’s Cauchon add considerable gravitas throughout the debates that neatly balance the desire for some to destroy Joan as a figurehead and those on the council with more humane intentions to save her soul.
With a life on the line this second part of the production takes on the urgency and tension the play requires and Shaw’s text feels modern and relevant, a wry comment on our tendency to build-up and then destroy icons. As that icon Arterton’s Joan is a nicely complex but actually consistent figure, and interestingly how we view her shifts with the context of the play as it does for the characters.
In the first part she is a crusader, entirely devoted and inspirational in her determination to put the sulky Dauphin on the throne and rid France of the English. With Joan praying fervently as the audience takes their seats, it’s clear in Arterton’s performance that she truly believes the voices in her head are those of the saints and that certainty sweeps the experienced military leaders along, her divine calm convincing them as it does the audience that she knows the way.
That shifts however in the second half as the clerics question Joan, and suddenly under their interrogation her certainty seems delusional. A touch of arrogance also creeps into the performance as Joan begins to believe in her own reputation and insist that her way was correct which gets her into a lot of trouble, opening up debates about her direct communion with God which questions the hold of the Catholic Church. This new angle that the audience gets on Joan’s approach is one of the most interesting aspects of the play, and a key success of this production because Arterton’s performance is unswerving in depicting Joan’s drive and determination, so it is the viewer’s perspective that is altered, a neat trick. Arterton’s choice of theatre roles is certainly putting some distance between her current work and the rom-com / Bond girl parts she was once offered.
Other than the concept itself there are a couple of minor niggles that detract somewhat from the performances. Revolving sets are becoming lazy shorthand for substituting tension and drama that’s not apparent in the production, but when they work well they can be superb – as in the Young Vic’s A Streetcar Named Desire. But here in the tiny Donmar space, where you can see the actors perfectly well from anywhere in the house, it’s not only unnecessary but distracting, especially when it judders round uncomfortably on its track.
Similarly frustrating are the choice of accents relying on some lazy stereotyping; Joan speaks in a West Country farmer accent so the audience clearly understands she is a peasant girl, while the English warmongers have the standard aristocratic voice that has walked off the set of Downton Abbey. It’s frustrating that these clichés are too often the fall-back, along with the comedy northerner, because it undermines the work of the actor in trying to convey a rounded character. Maybe in 2017 we should think about moving on from these rather cheap categorisations.
The Donmar’s production of Saint Joan is a mixed bag but Arterton’s performance certainly keeps the show on the road, and if you can make it past the interval your patience will be rewarded with a tense and gripping second half. Its overall concept may be a little thin but it certainly conveys what an interesting character Joan was, the complex reactions she provokes and why we continue to be fascinated by her claim to have heard the voice of God.
Saint Joan is at the Donmar Warehouse until the 18 February with a live cinema screening on 16 February. Tickets start at £7.50 for standing spots and the production is part of the Barclays Front Row scheme offering £10 tickets every Monday at 10am.