Preview: Saint Joan

Rory Russell 27 April 2019
Image Credit: www.arthermitage.org

In a life spanning only 19 years, Joan of Arc became one of the most recognisable figures of Medieval History. Her story has been told numerous times but Saint Joan, written 3 years after its titular characters’ canonisation, displays her as few, if any, had before: neither as an angel, nor a devil but as a real woman, who, through sheer charisma and strength of faith, upended her society and the war that threatened it.

Izzy Collie-Cousins’ production of Shaw’s masterwork promises to keep in line with the intentions of the playwright. As director, she makes great use of the creative steers he left in the stage directions. Just as the play’s inception was based around the original transcripts of the trial, the cast are paying great heed to the fact that the events and characters they are portraying are not only real but sewn into the fabric of history, at a key juncture in the Hundred Years War. It is important to note that this is not simply historical accuracy, but historical reality that is trying to be captured both on page and in performance, no mean feat.

In light of these strong aims the cast discussed their attempts to bring the characters to life as 3-dimensionally as possible. As Collie-Cousins pointed out, this is a tragedy without a villain. There is no malevolent, sneering Iago-type causing mayhem for petty concerns, but instead genuine people with genuine, albeit often misguided concerns. Beginning the rehearsal process by establishing each character’s unique physicality and voice, the cast have set about revealing the internal lives and thoughts of these figures through their reactions to and interactions with Joan. This can be a difficult task, with the added difficulty of the play showcasing 22 characters, 19 of which are shared between just 7 actors. However, as some characters have less time with which to make their presence felt, this only encourages the cast to attack each role with greater vigour to display as much as possible in their limited time, hopefully making for a vibrant and colourful stage come Tuesday night. Rowan Gow, playing three characters himself, finds a joy in each being distinct and recognisable. “We flesh out the characters through contrast with those who have gone before. Every time someone new enters the scene there is a new energy that comes on stage and keeps everything feeling fresh.”

This colourful cast are trapped in a vortex with Joan at its centre, driving her narrative forward (occasionally having to wrest it from other characters) and dividing opinion seemingly wherever she goes. She is present in almost every scene and even in the scenes where she’s not on stage the other characters are arguing about what to do with her, such is her impact.

Louisa Stuart-Smith, in the role of the heroine, finds her both “unbearable and captivating,” a far more interesting portrayal than the usual exultant praise or damning criticism. The play seeks to demythologise Joan, acknowledging the fact that she came from a bourgeois family, and abandoning the notion that she needs to be a ‘simple farm girl’ to make her story compelling. T.S. Eliot described Shaw’s Joan as the “greatest sacrilege of all Joans: for instead of the saint or the strumpet of the legends to which he objects, he has turned her into a great middle-class reformer, and her place is a little higher than Mrs. Pankhurst”. This production revels in such a comparison. When our discussion turned toward the play’s epilogue, most of the cast and creatives remarked it was their favourite scene, as a progression of characters all demonstrate Joan’s effect on them and the world at large, including people beyond her own time. That as a narrative is far more intriguing. Dominic Carrington gave the example of his character, Charles, whose arc comes about almost entirely because of Joan.

Watching this group in rehearsal, audiences should expect to see a cast all very much on the same page, all aware of the story they are trying to tell and it’s wider implications. Collie-Cousins described the process as greatly collaborative, particularly lauding her ADs, Phoebe Rowell John and Sophie Hill for creating what seemed like a very enjoyable happy working environment. A truly striking work of historical reality is taking place next week at the ADC. Definitely not one to miss.