Joan, Again (subtlenuance, SITCo) runs at the Old Fitzroy Theatre from 5-23 August 2014. Written and directed by Paul Gilchrist.
In 1431, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. Ten years later, in a quiet little village known mostly for making cushions (“where France learns to sleep!”), she has returned. Or has she?
Joan, Again explores the power of narrative as a way of understanding the world. Every character in the play knows the story of Joan, and on each of them, it has had a different effect. For gregarious Bernadette (Bonnie Kellett), Joan represents the promise of power, righteousness, and agency: the story of a girl who has done something is deeply inspiring for a girl who has been able to do so little. For her mother Isabelle (Helen Tonkin), Joan represents war, a monstrous horror which stole her son from her. The story of Joan reminds Gerard (James Collette) of all the things he did and did not do when he was at the Siege of Orleans. It is a great example of how a story is somehow more than itself: that it is polysemic, containing many layers, and that it can be interpreted and read many ways. When Joan or someone claiming to be her (Sylvia Keays) appears in the village, all these disparate readings of her story are thrown into sharp relief.
I think there were some really clever ideas underpinning Joan, Again. I’m very interested in the polysemic nature of narrative in my academic work, and it was exciting to see it explored in such an interesting way here. I was particularly intrigued by the way that the work put the emphasis on women’s stories, particularly in the first act. Throughout the play, the female characters are continually being told to be quiet by the male ones – that speaking is not feminine. The play opens begin with a collection of four female characters talking (and talking about how they talk too much). Throwing Joan – that woman who dared not only to speak, but to speak to kings and armies and to God himself – into that mix was very potent indeed.
Sadly, I think this element of the story fell away a bit in the second act, as stories about God and the politics of the church became more important. Overall, while I was very interested in the way Joan, Again dealt with questions of narrative, I think there was just too much stuff in the play for it to be really effective. It was kind of ironic that in a play so focused on the power of narrative that the narrative was obscured. This was mostly because there were simply too many words. I know I say this about a lot of shows (and it is obviously indicative of my own theatrical preferences), but at two and a half hours, this show was too long. If it had been cut down to about ninety minutes, I think it could have been scintillating. Pared back, with some of the unnecessary dialogue stripped away, and maybe less indulgence in one-liners (the play is very, very funny is some places, but I think sometimes this came at the expense of the pacing), Joan, Again could have been an absolute bombshell.
As it is, it’s still quite an absorbing play. There are some great performances, particularly from Helen Tonkin as Isabelle and Sylvia Keays, who is luminescent as Joan. It’s a very thoughtful piece of theatre. However, it could definitely have been improved if the really interesting thoughts that underpin it had been allowed to shine through the web of verbiage a little more.