The story of Joan of Arc, Maid of Orleans, is an iconic one. A peasant girl with no knowledge of war of military strategy, she starts hearing the voices of saints in her mind and, following their advice, becomes the commander of the armies of France. After several successful campaigns, she is captured by the English, and after being tortured, she is burned at the stake as a witch and a heretic, her legacy not being recognised until her canonisation in the 1920s. It is an incredibly interesting story. A peasant virgin rising to become a major military commander in fifteenth century France? How is that not fascinating? Unfortunately, George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan hones in on some of the least interesting parts of the Joan story. Genesian Theatre’s production of Shaw’s play is a solid one, and there are lots of things to like about it – not least the robust performance of Sabryna Te’o as Joan – but there is no escaping the wordiness of Shaw. The story of Joan is drowned in a sea of ponderous verbiage.
Anyone who has read any feminist theory will be familiar with the phrase “the personal is the political.” Saint Joan focuses very much on the political and not the personal, and this is to its detriment. It is about politicians, not people. Joan the person is the interesting part of the Joan of Arc story, this totally disenfranchised peasant girl who becomes a political figure, believing she is destined to lead armies and win back France for God. Joan is the lens through which the story becomes extraordinary. By focusing on the broader political interactions, this is nullified. A Joan of Arc story should be about Joan. Bernard Shaw’s play is not. Joan is in it, sure, but we view her at a distance. (Saint Joan does not pass the Bechdel test: it cannot, because Joan is the only female character. The entire play is either a group of men talking about Joan or Joan arguing with a group of men. It’s kind of a sausage fest.)
Saint Joan is famously a play without a villain: every character has clear motivations for their actions and ultimately believes they are doing the right thing, even when the things they are doing are heinous. The problem is that there are so many characters that they eventually blend into one big soldier/clergyman/Frenchman/Englishman conglomerate mass that you could label “dude that is anti-Joan”. I certainly lost track of them after a while, and I’m relatively familiar with the Joan of Arc story. I shudder to think what someone new to the story would have thought.
The play is, of course, a classic, and it’s probably heresy to say that I don’t like it much. But I don’t, so call me heretic. The political intrigue of the whole thing might be interesting to some, but seeing a bunch of dudes arguing about Joan? I don’t care. Show me Joan. Show me what she’s thinking. Show her to me when she’s alone, just her and her voices. Show her to me when she’s commanding men rather than arguing with them. Sabryna Te’o did a great job as Joan in this production. I was always excited when she came on stage. Her Joan was brave and bold, occasionally vulnerable, but always noble. Her rendition of Joan’s famous speech about preferring to die to being locked up was heartfelt and totally lovely. She’s a wonderfully vibrant performer and I hope to see her on stage again soon. Unfortunately for Te’o and for the audience, Bernard Shaw has left out and/or glossed over the most interesting parts of Joan’s story: her experience of voices from heaven, finding a divine sword beyond a church altar, her role as a soldier. This isn’t a story about Joan – it’s a story with Joan in it. Unfortunately, the people around Joan are really not that interesting, and trying to sustain interest in them for three hours? It’s an ask.
To be honest, I’m not sure if it is really possible for me to ever really enjoy a production of Saint Joan. I’m not a Shavian. I’m just not. His tendency to show people talking about things ad nauseam rather than doing them just doesn’t do it for me. (Here’s my review of STC’s Pygmalion from earlier this year: I’ve been a heretic for a while.) There are some really good performances from the Peter Brook-esque colourblind cast of the Genesian production of Saint Joan. If you like Bernard Shaw and like this play, you’ll probably like this production of it: Kevin Jackson is a very skilled director, and it shows. Considering how wordy it is, it is a taut production, and Jackson draws strong performances from his cast. It’s well designed and well lit and very visually appealing. But personally, I think that if you want a Joan of Arc story, you can probably do better than Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. If you want to know about Joan of Arc the person, rather than the political machinations of those around her? Go elsewhere.