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FringeReview UK 2017

Saint Joan

Donmar Warehouse

Genre: Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Donmar Warehouse


Low Down

Gemma Arterton sweeps into the Donmar in a modern dress Saint Joan directed by Josie Rourke. Robert Jones’ boardroom design tables shifts of power brokered in a circle, as it’s on a constant revolve. Howard Harrison’s lighting broadens from pin-point business to numinous halo. Chris Shutt on sound and Michael Bruce with music make minimalist FT chants turn Tibetan Buddhist incantations. To February 18th.



Josie Rourke’s Saint Joan led by Gemma Arterton sweeps into the Donmar in modern dress and breaking news on screen with the price of eggs index setting us up for a fall. Robert Jones’ simple boardroom design starkly tables shifts of power brokered literally in a circle, as it’s on a constant revolve. Howard Harrison’s lighting broadens from pin-point business to numinous halo at climactic moments.


Chris Shutt on sound and Michael Bruce with his music make minimalist FT chants turn Tibetan Buddhist incantations. Evan Davies and others pop up on a large screen superimposed with medieval images, linking iPads and tablets with a girl who still can’t write.


Like Schiller’s Mary Stuart directed by Phyllida Lloyd at the Almeida, this style leaves the play pared to visceral politics, though unlike the manhandling of both queens it’s Arterton the sole woman who touches, even caresses each of her male counterparts, in camaraderie, or in pity. Ironically more liberties are taken with this English language play than Robert Icke’s Schiller.


Arterton gleams not just because the light suffuses her in prayer: ardent in her naïve certainty, forceful with a rind of country charm, a ‘bourgeois’ as Shaw reminds us she can out-argue her critics and interlocutors despite the monumental word ‘pert’ applied to her, though her headlong arrogance as thrust forth by Arterton here leaves you sorry for the churchmen. Arterton’s lithe but innocently tactile country girl knows nothing of city cant. It’s a commanding performance whether standing on the table or cast in prison weeds smeared with dirt.


From seducing her early champions the growing whisper of unease arises from the very people who’d save Joan. Hadley Fraser’s Dunois, a bespectacled Bastard is truculently warm and sharp in rebuke. Guy Rhys’ La Hire, here even more downright than Joan proves her truest ally. Niall Buggy’s Archbishop both worldly and warning soars furiously into his ecstasy of admonishment: his voice is the most distinctive, more vehement than anyone afterwards. It’s a desperately appealing moment resonant with his residual power.


The great scene prior to the trial see Jo Stone-Fewings’ Warwick (shorn of his soliloquy on books) urbanely receive Elliot Levy’s serpentine but strikingly sympathetic Cauchon. This, like the speeches preluding the trial, are the finest things outside Arterton’s performance: lean, fast-paced, furiously intelligent.


Rory Keenan’s Inquisitor too impresses with the snappy dispatch of an asset-stripper. American, he seems as if appointed from a far land, and again his swift energy’s splendidly set against rebuffing excesses elsewhere: Richard Cant’s vein-throbbing de Stogumber, Matt Bardock’s prosecutor D’Estivet, Arthur Hughes’ defending Brother Martin Ladvenu, or Syrus Lowe’s excitable Courcelles who like de Stogumber seethes with the flames of damnation in his mouth. Keenan even corrals Levy’s Cauchon and challenges Warwick with his eight hundred men with spectacle-glinting dares to his authority.


Only in his final casual exchange with Cauchon is Keenan too rapid. To the latter’s ‘You call her innocent?’ his ‘Oh quite innocent… she did not understand a word we were saying’ is somewhat thrown away. And Warwick’s shrewd ‘The last of her?.. I wonder’ which wouldn’t have added more than a beat to the length is cut. De Stogumber’s collapse is however drastically pruned, as if manicuring some of the outbursts leaves the production more dark-suited. I wonder.


Arteron’s chemistry in this scene shows just why the revolve’s so effective as the characters pace in a contrary motion and Joan’s adamant appeal to her own authority is only collapsed by the evidence of a pyre, literally like a burnt-through log. The very pace of this makes one wonder what Rourke might have made after all, of the epilogue with more imagination. For it’s almost completely cut. Contradictions in this production glare.


Shaw’s great coup is to move the action twenty-five years to the king’s bedchamber in 1456 after the corrupt exonerating procedure finding Joan innocent. Everyone turns up, the king’s character having grown in acuity just as de Stogumber’s has shrunk (he’s the one character who survives the cut; even Joan’s almost silent). The comedy, pith and final re-renouncing lends the whole conclusion its force. But Shaw long preceded Rourke in modern dress, his bowler-hatted man of 1920 coming to tell Joan she’s been sanctified and baffling all the fifteenth century characters with his strange garb. Such garb now appears almost as quaint to us: it might have been curiously managed in this production. To cut all this loses half the argument of the play. As Charles the Victorious points out ’they would burn her again within six months’ and Arterton’s final lines arise out of this. Here, they’re tacked on.


It’s as if Rourke wants to avoid Shaw’s subversion of his own tragedy by stripping out his final sallies of wit. In that sense her reading is even retrogressive, certainly romantic, making Shaw the perfect Ibsenite he chose not to be.


Rourke however directs a wonderfully lean vehicle for Shavian dialectic as furious power-play. Aterteron bestrides the board table as a scruffy colossus who brings it values to collapse all shares in any market. She has to burn. It’s something we need reminding of.