Theater Review: At the Shaw Festival — An Exquisite “Saint Joan”

In this superb production, George Bernard Shaw’s version of Wonder Woman is far from a comic book savior.

Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Tim Carroll. Designed by Judith Bowden. Lighting designed by Kevin Lamotte. Movement direction by Alexis Milligan, Music direction and original music by Claudio Vena. Traditional Corsican songs “Kyrie Eleison” based on transcriptions and arrangements by James Oxley. Produced by The Shaw Festival at The Festival Theatre, Niagara on the Lake, Canada, through October 15.

Steven Sutcliffe as Captain La Hire and Sara Topham as Joan in the Shaw Festival Production of "Saint Joan." Photo: David Cooper.

Steven Sutcliffe as Captain La Hire and Sara Topham as Joan in the Shaw Festival Production of “Saint Joan.” Photo: David Cooper.

By David Greenham

In his program notes, director Tim Carroll confesses that he selected Saint Joan as his premiere production as the Shaw Festival’s Artistic Director because of the poetry in this historical epic. Shaw’s masterpiece, first performed in 1923, was written just three years after Joan d’Arc was canonized. He seized on this as an opportunity for an iconoclastic re-envisioning of the figure and it was a success. The script most likely led to him being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1925, “for his work which is marked by both idealism and humanity, its stimulating satire often being infused with a singular poetic beauty.”

The poetry of Saint Joan is undeniable and, almost a hundred years on, challenging to audiences raised on the terse chatter in TV and movies. But, in the capable hands of Carroll, his creative team, and The Shaw Festival’s excellent company of actors, this production pulls off being both a refreshingly contemporary experience and a Shavian delight. The eloquence of Shaw’s language is just part of what makes the production so memorable. At the center of it all is actress Sara Topham, whose defiant Joan is a plucky, determined, and unwavering heroine. She’s nothing if not relentless: “You should only attack,” she tells Gray Powell’s Dunois, “and if you hold on long enough the enemy will stop first.” The character is referring to the famous French victory at Orleans, but Topham could just as easily be referring to her approach to playing this iconic role.

That sense of never-say-die epitomizes this energetic and vivid production. When it comes to Shaw, the enemy is dead air, a defeated sense that the audience has been left behind, perhaps dumbfounded, by the dramatist’s complex ideas and intellectual swashbuckling. The only time the breakneck pace relents is when we are stopped cold, breathless at the staging’s beauty, as in the moment in the first act when Joan receives her sword. It’s a stunning and graceful image — the sword slowly drops to her from above in a coup de théâtre.

The enemy in this story of Shavian divinity denied is, not surprisingly, the reasonable hypocrisy of church and state. How can we ordinary folk depend on the whims of supermen and -women? Part of Shaw’s genius is that he gives the unenlightened some of the best lines; great drama means you must give the devil his due. Joan is famously guided by the voices of St. Michael, St. Catherine, and St. Margaret. During the trial scene, the Canon d’Estivet (Jeff Meadows) asks if her “voices command you not to subject yourself to the church militant?” “My voices do not tell me to disobey The Church; but God must be served first,” she replies. For Shaw, the truth inevitably disrupts the compromises of the everyday. The Church and God do not always share the same goals. But who is to say when the safe and prosaic must be discarded? What if it is the voice of the Devil’s Disciple? Graeme Somerville’s Peter Cauchon demands “And you, and not The Church, are to be the judge?” “What other judgement can I judge by but my own?,” Joan responds.

We know the judgment that will be meted out to Joan, and there is a temptation for directors to make her into a feisty martyr — everyone else in the play but Joan knows she is doomed. Topham and Powell won’t have any of that special pleading: Richard, Earl of Warwick (Tom McCamus), the Archbishop of Rheims (Benedict Campbell), and The Inquisitor (Jim Mezon) show a measured respect for Joan that keeps the play’s conflicts on a level playing field. Joan’s quick and thoughtful answers to the continual efforts to undermine her belief in herself make us root for her. In Saint Joan, Shaw’s celebration of individuality moves into radical territory.

And that brings us to the play’s treatment of gender. We are still struggling today with notions of power and sexuality, and it’s wonderful to see a (geriatric?) play with such a strong female character, a figure of  ceaseless determination, resolute action-taking, and singularity of thought. That is not to say she denies her gender but, rather, Joan is unflinching in her drive to succeed – masculine-like in a modern context, unfortunately. Still, Shaw takes great pains to present her as a complex human being, and the performances in this exquisite production never question that commitment. Shaw’s version of Wonder Woman is far from a comic book savior.

Sara Topham as Joan and the cast of "Saint Joan." Photo: Emily Cooper.

Sara Topham as Joan and the cast of “Saint Joan.” Photo: Emily Cooper.

Shaw insists in his preface to the published version of the script (his prefaces are prolix to the point of exhaustion, but still worth reading) that he put no villains in the play. He goes on to explain that “Crime, like a disease, is not interesting: it is something to be done away with in general consent, and that is all about it. It is what men do at their best, with good intentions, and what normal men and women find they must and will do in spite of their intentions that really concern us.” Given the extremes that ideological tongue-lashings are going to today — each side sees itself as fighting for good against evil — Carroll and the Shaw Festival should be congratulated for mounting a political drama that pits equally contentious and passionate points of view against each other. Joan wins the Battle of Orleans, of course, but loses to the collusion of the Catholic Church and the English government; she was burned at the stake in 1431. Shaw knows the fight against prophecy doesn’t end there and, in a controversial epilogue, sardonically examines how (and why) history was rewritten when, in 1920, she was canonized as St. Joan by the same Catholic Church that had condemned her.

As for the performances in the Shaw Festival production, there are no gaps in the cast of 16 actors, several of whom are called to double roles over the course of the play’s seven scenes. The set is a raked platform with a motorized back wall that can shift horizontally to reveal entrances or designate new locations. A box suspended from the fly loft drops down to the stage — it becomes an opaque holding cell. The edges of the stage and pieces of the set are outlined in a soft blue hue — an intriguing contrast to the all-black setting. Costumes are modernish; some are military uniforms and others are three-piece suits. These bits of the contemporary garb are offset by the traditional robes of the Catholic clergy. Generous applications of chiaroscuro pump up the intrigue and tension. There are two kinds of music: recorded sounds and tones push the action along, while transitions from scene to scene are finessed with hymns performed live by the company. Carroll’s staging is economical and efficient, but there are no shortage of panoramic stage pictures.

At the beginning of the play, Joan demands to see Captain Robert de Baudricourt (Allan Lewis), the do-nothing military leader of the castle at Vaucouleurs, of whom Shaw writes “being the sort of man whom age cannot wither because he has never bloomed.” Joan has spent days winning the allegiance of the soldiers, and now demands that she be given armor and a horse to save Orleans from the English. It’s his aides who convince de Baudricourt to agree to her terms. “Her words and her ardent faith in God have put fire into me,” says Bertrand de Poulengey (Jeff Meadows). “You are as mad as she is,” de Baudrocourt replies. “We want a few mad people now,” de Poulengey responds obstinately, “see where the sane ones have landed us!.” In America, we seem to be testing Shaw’s theory about the positive value of mad leaders. So far, at least, it seems that we are going to find out just where insanity lands us.

David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.

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