Glass reviews Saint Joan at the Donmar Warehouse

OLIVIER award-winning director Josie Rourke certainly has a job on her hands bringing George Bernard Shaw’s 1923 tragedy, Saint Joan into not only the contemporary theatre space but also the current cultural and economic climate. Nevertheless, she does it quite spectacularly with relevancy and poignancy in the latest offering from the Donmar. Known as Shaw’s only tragedy, and written in the aftermath of the Suffragette movement, Saint Joan begs some of the earliest questions surrounding feminism and women’s rights.

fisayo-akinade-the-dauphin-and-gemma-arterton-joan-in-the-donmar-warehouses-production-of-saint-joan-dir-josie-rourke-photo-jack-sain-2Fisayo Akinade (The Dauphin) and Gemma Arterton (Joan) in the Donmar Warehouses
production of Saint Joan. Photograph: Jack Sain

For those of you who don’t know the legend of Joan of Arc, also known as The Maid of Orleans, she was born in 1412 in a rural French village and claimed to receive visions from Saint Margaret and Saint Catherine. These visions instructed her to support Charles VII and recover France from English domination late in the Hundred Years’ War. Burned at the stake aged 19 after being handed over to the English, but later declared innocent and a martyr in 1456, Joan was finally canonised in 1920. Joan’s plight transcends time and space which is what makes her a perfect candidate as the centre piece of a play, in any decade. Shaw’s iconic play asks the audience how society would deal with the figure of Saint Joan in the current climate.

gemma-arterton-joan-and-company-in-the-donmar-warehouses-production-of-saint-joan-dir-josie-rourke-photo-jack-sainGemma Arterton (Joan) in the Donmar Warehouses production of Saint Joan. Photograph: Jack Sain

Hurtling us into the modern day, Rourke unveils her play in a male-dominated boardroom set up and while all the actors wear contemporary dress, only Joan graces the stage in traditional Medieval costume. This choice highlights Joan’s isolation in the patriarchal society where she must work tirelessly to get people to listen to her. Robert Jones’ clever set design features a rotating glass conference table while rolling screens behind constantly bombard us with information on stocks and shares. Whilst this artistic choice to draw parallels between Shaw’s text and the modern day is certainly significant and impressive, it does feel facetious at times, as the real meaning of the script can get a little lost in between Skpe calls and iPhones.

gemma-arterton-joan-in-the-donmar-warehouses-production-of-saint-joan-dir-josie-rourke-photo-jack-sain-3Gemma Arterton  as Joan in the Donmar Warehouses production of Saint Joan. Photograph: Jack Sain

Last seen on stage as the alluring and coquettish Nell Gwynn, Gemma Arterton’s Saint Joan is rather different in character but portrayed with same undeniable charisma. As the audience enters, we are greeted by a spotlit Arterton, dressed in chainmail and mouthing prayers before a crucifix. From the get-go, she is totally captivating and plays Joan with a delightful radiance and simplicity. Arterton skilfully manages to balance this rural naivety with an unwavering determination and eternal optimism.

Being the only woman in the piece could be a daunting task, but Arterton’s fearlessness and fortitude seem to disconcert every man she comes across. Unsure of how to deal with her overwhelming faith, many of her male counterparts are hypnotised yet unnerved by her presence.  Other notable performances include the charming Fisayo Akinade as a rather camp and spineless Dauphin. He is a delight to watch on stage and however cowardly his character is meant to be, he is endearing and amusing.

This is without doubt a performance worth watching. The production underpins Shaw’s intentions of presenting Joan as modern feminist, while shrewdly using the current socio-economic climate to highlight the text’s relevancy today.

simon-holland-roberts-la-tremouille-and-niall-buggy-archbishop-in-the-donmar-warehouses-production-of-saint-joan-dir-josie-rourke-photo-jack-sainSimon Holland (Roberts la Tremouille) and Niall Buggy (Archbishop) in the Donmar Warehouses
production of Saint Joan. Photograph: Jack Sain

by Heather Doughty

@DonmarWarehouse @josierourke  @GemmaArterton @FisayoAkinade

Saint Joan runs at the Donmar Warehouse until February 18, 2017 and it will be broadcast in cinemas across the country via NT Live on Thursday  February 16, 2017.

Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, Seven Dials, London, WC2H 9LX
Tel: 0844 871 7624