I know of Saint Joan but not a lot about Saint Joan. I knew she lead the French in battles against the English because voices in her head told her too. I think she was burnt on the stake. I assume because people thought her a witch. I have no idea on dates or if any of the above is actually accurate. After seeing Josie Rourke’s Saint Joan, I feel like I understand the historical events better. Turned out she wasn’t hearing God but two saints: Saint Catherine (Patron saint of, amongst other things: unmarried girls, hat-makers and stenographers) and Margaret the Virgin (Patron saint of, amongst other things: dying people, kidney disease and Malta). She also had the odd visit from the archangel Michael! Talk about a VIP.
First, let’s talk about Rourke’s vision for the 1923 play by Bernard Shaw. It is set in the boardroom. Since donning the sensible black shoes and pencil skirt over a year ago, I understand office politics. The stage is dominated by the men and the glass boardroom table. It is clean and sharp. Suits are pressed and top bottoms are done up. This is no place for a bright eye young girl with visions of liberating France. Gemma Arterton arrives with a spring in her step and voices in her head, dressed as the common farm girl she it.
If I didn’t know any better, I would have assumed this was the way Shaw intended the play to staged, that it was never meant to be set in the 15th Century at all. Before we understand Joan, you need to understand the ladder she climbed. The play, which is only and famously six scenes, is a mess of titles and power. When the men aren’t discussing Joan, they reminding each other of their position in the kingdom, country and church, and who they know in the kingdom, country and church. It is clear why some productions want to throw in war scenes, the play can be a little dull. One can only watch men massaging their ego and assert their authority for so long.
I feel bad that in a play called Saint Joan about Saint Joan and the rise and fall of Saint Joan I’ve hardly mentioned her name. Joan is on the top of the agenda of this meeting at the Donmar Warehouse, but like any meeting it’s gotten out of control and off topic. Little bit like this review. Arterton is memorising on stage. It’s easy to see how her version of Joan would convince people she was sent by God. She is innocence and determination; it’s impressive that the church could find 64 counts against her. But they did. If there’s one thing I have learned from this play, never underestimate religion.