Most of us are familiar with the story of Joan of Arc. In 15th century France, a young farm girl believes God is communicating with her through voices, and goes on a successful military campaign against the British before eventually being betrayed by her supporters and burned at the stake for heresy.
George Bernard Shaw takes this narrative and digs deeper, prodding at the political and religious dynamics of the day and asking what we as a society might learn from Joan’s fate. The result, Saint Joan, currently playing at the Shaw Festival, is a thought-provoking, if uneven, rendition of the tale.
Sara Topham is definitely plugged in as the titular shiny-eyed martyr. The strength of Joan’s character and belief is palpable throughout the play. But Topham labours under the weight of the show, and the audience gradually becomes numb to her incessantly plaintive tone. It’s a difficult role: how does one portray fanaticism without a trace of the doubt that propels them? Joan has plenty of political and religious foes, but without a discernible internal conflict, her character ironically becomes the least interesting on stage.
Standouts in the excellent ensemble include Wade Bogert-O’Brien as the lovably impetuous Dauphin, and Benedict Campbell, who portrays the perfidious Archbishop of Rheims with such gentility as to shame the audience for being fooled once his true colours show.
But the true star of the show is designer Judith Bowden, whose simple, modern set is full of surprises. Black chasms become solid ground; walls transform into ceilings; giant cubes and columns fly. Several set changes elicit audible gasps and applause from the audience. The neutral colours and clean lines of both her set and costumes create openness and space for Shaw’s words to resonate, while simultaneously lending them a contemporary feel.
Director and new Shaw boss Tim Carroll supports this modernity with concise staging and shoestring theatricality. The simple battle effects and short bouts of choral singing that punctuate the play are valuable details that add much in substance but little in weight.
(Less sure, however, is the decision to leave intact the substantial epilogue which, while surely providing a happier ending than a burning at the stake, drags the show kicking and screaming to the end of its almost three-hour running time.)
Saint Joan is a solid production. The cast is strong and the design is stunning. However, while it certainly provides a clear arena for the ideas of the playwright, it may leave you wondering why – and if – this story needs to be told right now.
Playing until Oct. 15 at the Festival Theatre. Visit shawfest.com for tickets and information.