Saint Joan at the National

Saint Joan is not often performed, and I doubt whether I’ll ever see it better acted or presented than at the National. Marianne Elliott’s production treats Shaw’s theatrical ideas with some freedom, in that the detailed stage directions and naturalistic scene descriptions are ignored – but the play is allowed to speak, very potently.

It was all presented on what looks at first like a plain wooden platform, which rotates and tilts and does all sorts of tricks as the evening moves on. Behind that there is a semicircle of war-ravaged trees like a Paul Nash landscape. On the platform at the start there is a pile of chairs. In a slightly unnecessary opening ritual, each actor ponderously takes a chair, and does things with it in slow motion. Actors enjoy doing that sort of thing, and it’s harmless, I guess. The chairs were arranged beside the platform,and any actor not performing in a particular scene sat at the side and watched, underlining, I suppose, the public nature of Joan’s career.

Ann-Marie Duff gave a rounded picture of Joan. Not too saintly. Not above using feminine wiles. Vulnerable, with all the naivety of self-confident youth. It was pretty evident from the start that those on authority would need to find ways of controlling her.

It was the actors playing the authority figures that I found most impressive. There is a long scene of debate between the clear-sighted and amoral Warwick, the intellectual priest Cauchon and the patriotic but rather dim Stogumber. The director wisely resisted any temptation to jazz up the scene with action. She trusted Shaw at his wordiest, and it paid off. This was three men talking politics and religion over a tea table, and what they said mattered. The sequence with the strongest modern resonance was the one in which Cauchon compared Joan with Mohammed. (Incidentally, Shaw wanting to write a play about an inspired military leader, originally thought of Mohammed– until he realised he’d be unleashing a fatwa on all concerned if he asked for the prophet to be impersonated on the stage) Cauchon asks how it would be if every man thought himself a Mohammed, divinely and uncontrollably inspired to fight for his vision of God. We, the modern audience at the National, realised that Joan’s persecutors were tackling the same problem that we face today with fanatical suicide bombers. It’s marvelous how old plays can suddenly acquire new relevance, so that the words jump out and hit you. (I’ve always found Shakespeare’s Richard II an astonishing play in this respect. Whatever is currently in the headlines, you can bet some lines from the play will sum up the issues, generally in a fairly uncomfortable way.)

Those chairs were put to use again in a battle scene that was a terrific riotous percussion set-piece. I wondered at the time what it added to the play, but looking back I can see that it was clever direction. We had an orgy of noise – and then were ready to appreciate the scene of quiet but intense dicussion that followed.

Towards the end, the chairs were piled up to make Joan’s pyre, and smoke and red light approximated to the burning. I think this was a mistake – and not just because it went against Shaw’s professed dislike for Drury Lane spectacle. The image was memorable, but it went against the text. What we saw was not what Brother Martin described in the next scene.

In all, though, it was a terrific three hours, and went a long way towards restoring my respect for Shaw, an author with whom I’ve had an on-off relationship for the past 50 years, I realised as I was going home from the theatre.

At my school in suburban Essex there was a teachers’ dramatic society, “The Pedagogues”, who put on a production each year, and often chose minor Shaw. I remember Misalliance and Fanny’s First Play, both of which I thought excellent. Then one English lesson when I was about fourteen, the teacher brought in copies of Saint Joan, and we read the first scene round the class. I don’t think we ever finished the play in lesson time, but I borrowed it from our local library that weekend, and was hooked. Those were the days when a small suburban library could be counted on to have a row of the complete works of Shaw in its plays section, and over the next two years I worked my way through them, reading all the plays, most of the prefaces and one or two of the early novels. For a liberal education, you can do worse.

After that a reaction set in. I got interested in other sorts of writer, and Shaw seemed a bit less impressive, too glib and know-it-all. Some parts of his work I came to actively detest. Once I had to teach Major Barbara for A-Level, and deeply disliked the triviality with which it treated arms-dealing. Beatrice Webb called the play “gambling with people’s emotions,” and she was right. I heartily dislike Heartbreak House, too (the comedy isn’t very funny, and the serious bits are trying too hard, so become windy rhetoric). On the other hand, when I acted the part of Colonel Pickering in an amateur production of My Fair Lady, I appreciated how good Shaw could be. (I read recently that T.S.Eliot is on record as saying that he preferred My Fair Lady to Pygmalion. I agree – but Shaw’s play is the solid rock that those songs are based on.)

Researching the Great War, I’ve read some more of what Shaw wrote at the time, but haven’t been very impressed. I came across a piece called The Little Girl and the Emperor in a 1917 Storyteller Magazine. He imagines the Kaiser meeting a little girl on the battlefield and seeing the error of his ways. Silly stuff.

So I came to Saint Joan with mixed expectations. Would it work? It did. There are weaknesses. I don’t think much of that he makes Joan finally embrace martyrdom because imprisonment would cut her off from the flowers and trees – that is reducing the seriousness of the character we have met previously. But he does present a potent mixture of religion and politics in a way that still has the power to surprise.

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