Saint Joan is George Bernard Shaw’s only tragedy. One of his more frequently-performed works, it can risk seeming a pretty dusty period piece. Its medieval setting makes it appear very much of its time, and there’s a definite danger of its dramaturgy feeling stodgy. This ambitious and energetic production from the Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club succeeds in making Shaw’s anti-dramatic style exciting. It grapples fully with the piece’s complexities while still giving full weight to the plot and bringing out the fascination of its major themes, nationalism and fanaticism. Director Izzy Collie-Cousins smartly controlled the tone of the play, bordering on farce in the first few scenes but swiftly gaining in tragic intensity. The drama of the narrative was put over forcefully, and material about church and state, religion and politics, was given room to make its mark without dragging.
The set, a platform in the middle of the stage, crowned by red-painted chevrons, was striking and well adapted for moving fluidly between the more tableau-like scenes. It suggested a crown, a prison, a chapel. An arresting triptych to represent Rheims Cathedral was especially well done. The lighting, by Emily Brailsford, was excellent, thoughtful and inventive, casting unexpected shadows and wonderfully illuminating Joan’s face.
As Joan herself, Louisa Stuart-Smith brought pathos and dignity to Joan’s determination not to submit to the Church, even in the face of death. The Joan of the first two scenes has a touch of the inter-war boarding school about her, so earnest as to border on being genuinely annoying, but Stuart-Smith came into her own in the second half, when Joan’s supporters desert her. The ensemble cast, in their orbit around Joan, were uniformly good, and all differentiated their double-cast roles very well. No one fell into the temptation to overplay hypocrisy. Eleanor Watson, who in a clever bit of double-casting plays the general Dunois and the Inquisition’s prosecutor, gave a particularly strong performance. Watson brought focused and calm energy to the part, and stood out against some slightly frenetic acting. Also good were William Batty as the Archbishop, first dry and then genuinely malevolent, and Rosy Sida as the Earl of Warwick – both utterly convinced of the necessity of their actions.
A couple of quibbles: some of the costumes had a touch of pantomime about them, and there were one or two opening-night stumbles. The passionate performance and polished direction, however, were truly impressive. This outstanding production rose to the challenge of some daunting material – and makes a case for having a look at some of Shaw’s other drama.