The Cambridge Union is certainly an impressive venue for live theatre – and fortunately, Saint Joan is just as impressive a production for it. Written by George Bernard Shaw, the play follows the events leading to Joan of Arc’s eventual death (spoilers for 15th century history), chronicling her rise to leading the armies of France and eventual death at the hands of politics and religion. It shifts between extremes of ‘farce’ and ‘tragedy’, as noted by director Tom Runciman, and handles both ends of the spectrum very well.
The most striking visual element of the show has to be the superb costumes. Under costume designer Emma Mortimer and hired from the National Theatre, they set the tone immediately and give the production an instant air of professionalism; as actors take on multiple roles, they also serve an efficient narrative purpose. The shifts in Joan’s status, portrayed brilliantly by Marie-Ange Camara, are reflected in what she wears: the transition from maid to warrior to tragic victim are not only portrayed with ease, but visually reinforced throughout.
The rest of the cast all hold their own alongside Marie-Ange’s strong performance, however. Matthew Sargent’s Archbishop is particularly convincing, expressing both conviction in his emotion and displaying a keen sense of physicality on-stage, whether the focus of the scene or merely in the background. The late act entry of the Inquisitor, one of Andrew Hardigg’s two roles in the production, is also a highlight – the character feels at once an outside force disrupting the ongoing events and fits perfectly in with the rest of the play. The performance is one of a character who is convicted of everything they say in the moment, even if they don’t mean their words at all, and the shift for Hardigg to an american accent cuts through the rest of the cast, adding to the unnerving sense of unease his character brings to the, quite literal at this point, proceedings. Whilst occasionally the performances teeter into “shouty acting”, which come across more like jumpscares than emotional reactions, the whole cast should be commended for their performances throughout, both in terms of their strength and how well they go together; no actor feels like they are “in a different play” from another.
Admittedly, the play is slightly stronger in the first half than the second – likely a product of the script, but worth noting all the same. The comedic timing of the cast is just that bit stronger than the emotional effort the second half requires, and whilst the interval does much to separate the moods, some of the much harder to hit emotional notes could just do with a little more drive to them. That being said, these notes aren’t missed – they just don’t strike quite as efficiently as the comedic moments do; the range the whole cast shows is impressive nonetheless, especially Marie-Ange’s scene describing the ‘voices in the bells’.
Alongside the choice in venue, the manner in which it is used shows refreshing constraint. The show is performed relatively in the round, the actors in the middle of or to the front of the audience, but the space is used well, never feeling like a regular play adapted but one designed from the ground up with the staging in mind. The low lighting, relative lack of props and scenery serve to focus your attention on the characters: the speaker’s chair is used as a throne, but always feels part of the scene, never being placed in one simply for the sake of taking advantage of the venue. Having many scenes set in cathedrals, palaces and court-like spaces alongside careful lighting help, but the play feels aware enough of its venue that you never do whilst watching – in the best way possible.
Above all else, the play should be praised for the sense of cohesiveness it shows. The actors, prop choices and staging all seem perfectly in sync with one another, and, to put it simply, it does just work as such. It’s smooth, very polished, and highly engaging. Proper credit should be given to the cast and crew for this great production – it’s only a shame it isn’t running for longer.
Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw is on at the Cambridge Union at 7:30pm until the 15th May. Tickets can be bought here: https://www.adcticketing.com/whats-on/play/saint-joan/