There’s no doubt that Bernard Shaw’s play about Joan of Arc has many current resonances: the role of women, nationalism, globalisation, East versus West posturing and Brexit. And if there were any doubt, director Josie Rourke makes sure we get it with this unsubtle interpretation that is saved by some nice performances, in particular a glowing and layered turn from Gemma Arterton in the title role.
Rourke sets the action in a chrome and glass boardroom where City wideboys jockey for position and share prices and news updates are projected onto a giant screen. But Shaw’s martial and religious dialogue doesn’t sit too comfortably in this setting, and with only Arterton in medieval costume alongside the sharp suits, it all feels a bit too clever by half.
Simple farm girl Joan talks her way into this testosterone-fuelled arena by revealing that she is being spoken to by Saint Margaret, Saint Catherine and the angel Michael, who have told her to raise an army so she can lift the siege at Orléans, drive out the English and crown the Dauphin at Rheims Cathedral. She is patronised but the operation proves a success. Not content with that, Joan urges the Dauphin to push on with the offensive but she is captured and tried for heresy.
Fisayo Akinade (The Dauphin) and Gemma Arterton (Joan) in Saint Joan (photos by Jack Sain)
The play has been cut from its original epic running time to a more manageable two and a half hours, but there are still long passages of dense dialogue about theology that sit incongruously with the production’s modern setting, making the first act a bit of a slog at times.
Thankfully it comes to life after the interval with the drama of Joan’s trial. Despite her life being at stake, she refuses to accept the word of the church over the voices in her head, believing them to be a direct communication with God.
The second act is also more compelling because we get to see more of Arterton. She has a compelling radiance about her and when her fate at the end of the trial finally becomes clear, the intensity of the emotion is palpable.
There are nice turns to from Niall Buggy as the archbishop, who rages with fury at what he sees as Joan’s sin of pride; Hadley Fraser as Dunois, who tries to introduce a measure of level-headedness into the proceedings; and Fisayo Akinade as the foppish Dauphin.
This is a good attempt at giving the play a new twist, but it might have been more potent to let the resonances speak for themselves rather than signposting them so obviously.
Saint Joan is at the Donmar Warehouse until 18 February. It will be broadcast live in cinemas on Thursday 16 February. Book tickets at ntlive.com