Saint Joan at the Donmar WarehouseCultureTheatre
Tis the season for modernisation. Hot on the heels of Ivo van Hove’s Hedda Gabler and Robert Icke’s Mary Stuart, Josie Rourke has dusted off George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan for the Donmar Warehouse, dumping the French warrior into the suited and booted confines of the board room. Yet this is more a mash-up than full-on update, a curious blending of a very specific present and past that never really achieves synthesis.
Joan, here played by Gemma Arterton, becomes a woman stranded in time, transposed to a world of Bloomberg TV, BBC’s Newsnight and an ever-intolerant Daily Mail. It’s not quite clear what Rourke is trying to achieve by having her traditionally dressed Joan wander through the modern world. Is the director suggesting the Saint was as out of place then as she would be now? Is Rourke trying to emphasise the masculine rules Joan was born into by recreating spaces that remain dominated by men? The effect is more muddled than enigmatic, window dressing that fails to provide insight into Joan’s plight. It also turns the stage into an anonymous mass of ugly blue carpet, the long glass table in the centre merely reinforcing the image of a drab conference room in some dreary retail park.
Considering the name of the play, Joan as a character is remarkably underdeveloped. Only in the climatic trial is Arterton allowed to portray anything beyond innocent naivety; by this point, however, too little has been seen of her for Joan’s tragic fate to carry the heft it should. There are a few other solid performances dotted throughout the narrative; Fisayo Akinade is perfect as the Little Lord Dauphin, while there is a nice turn by Jo Stone-Fewings, his Warwick dripping with English arrogance. Best is perhaps Rory Keenan’s Inquisitor, who tears through the religious legalese of the trial with a tenacity that is lacking elsewhere.
It’s hard not to compare the Saint Joan to what the Almeida has down with Mary Stuart. Both deal with iconic female leaders and the political machinations of their respective periods; however, where the tale of two queens crackles with relevance, Saint Joan is leaden, its attempts at timeliness more groan- than gasp-worthy. It’s a shame. Joan is a mass of contractions: a proto-feminist seemingly dismissive of women; a sympathetic fervent nationalist; a bastion of individual faith who nears fanaticism in her religious views. Yet this production fails to tap into these aspects, instead choosing a gimmicky contemporary setting that ironically clouds the relevance of the narrative.
Photos: Jack Sain
Saint Joan is at the Donmar Warehouse from 19th December 2016 until 18th February 2017, for further information or to book a visit here. The play will also be broadcast live from the Donmar Warehouse to over 700 UK cinemas on 16th February 2017.