Monday, June 18, 2018

Saint Joan

Sarah Snook as Joan
in Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw
Photo: Brett Boardman
Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw.  Sydney Theatre Company at Roslyn Packer Theatre, June 5 – 30, 2018.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

I first acknowledge George Bernard Shaw.  At 16, my adult life began with my reading his 1924 play Saint Joan and his Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism.  This phase took me from the fifties to the sixties, to Bob Dylan’s words about The Times They Are A-changing: “I had to play this song on the same night that President Kennedy died.”

Now in 2018, at a similar age Shaw was when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1925, I humbly acknowledge Imara Savage and Sarah Snook for showing me the right Saint Joan for our times, true to Shaw and the direction of change – even in the face of those who would take us backwards to the fifties or worse.

This production of Saint Joan must surely travel the world.  Not merely because it has such clarity of purpose and theatrical intensity, but because people need to understand the ethics of civilisation – if you like, of the Western tradition.

Sarah, Imara and writer Emme Hoy have done what I had never imagined could be done: they have made Shaw’s work even more powerful than he could have known.  As Imara has written in her Director’s Note: “Shaw, like Joan, was a thoroughly modern individual, a rebel and an agitator.  It is in this spirit that we have approached the work.  And whilst failure is always a possibility, an unambitious Saint Joan is really no Saint Joan at all.”

They have trimmed and refocussed the original script because times have indeed a-changed.  Shaw’s audience, shortly after the mass destruction of World War I, needed to have Joan, seeking support early in her career, introduced to them via some seemingly inconsequential comedy at Robert de Baudricourt’s expense: “No eggs!  No eggs!  Thousand thunders, man, what do you mean by no eggs?”  His steward explains:  “Sir: it is not my fault.  It is the act of God.”

Today’s audience, after World Wars I and II and the current threat of a breakdown in world order, wants humour of a different kind – direct and pointed.  And so we begin today with the meeting in Scene IV of Richard de Beauchamp Earl of Warwick and Bishop Cauchon of Beauvais.  Apart from asides like “We were not fairly beaten, my lord.  No Englishman is ever fairly beaten”, the issue of Joan’s success – “Charles is to be crowned at Rheims, practically by the young woman from Lorraine; and – I must not deceive you, nor flatter your hopes – we cannot prevent it...” as Warwick lays the political cards out:  “It would, I presume, be the duty of your reverend lordship to denounce her to the Inquisition, and have her burnt for that offence” of being a sorceress.

This is Shaw with no leavening of the horror of Joan’s situation.  This the Shaw whose every word is telling, whether it makes us laugh or cringe in its irony.  Nothing of Shaw’s writing is lost, while some is added so that we come to know and understand Joan’s voices.  We know from the beginning of this production that we are in the hands of a great playwright.  Sarah’s Joan becomes more than a mere theatrical symbol as she realises how she has been fooled into signing a confession which will lead to a life worse than death.  Sarah’s performance is nothing short of miraculous.

Focus in simplicity of costume, set design, lighting and sound is the keynote to this production.  Wherever it goes, this design must go with it.  See it very soon if you can, or seek out Sydney Theatre Company’s Saint Joan wherever in the world you may find it.

Director – Imara Savage
Additional Writers – Imara Savage, Sarah Snook, Emme Hoy

Set Designer – David Fleischner; Costume Designer – Renee Mulder; Lighting Designer – Nick Schlieper; Composer & Sound Designer – Max Lyandvert

Gareth Davies – Dauphin / King / Assessor / George
John Gaden – Inquisitor / Archbishop
Brandon McClelland – General / Executioner
Sean O’Shea – Priest
Socratis Otto – Officer / Prosecutor
Sarah Snook – Joan
Anthony Taufa – Brother / Bluebeard / Julian
David Whitney – Earl / Captain
William Zappa – Bishop