Joan of Arc is one of the most documented historical figures from the 15th century and so despite being around more than 1600 years ago, her story has survived and can be accurately told. Bernard Shaw’s 1923 play about ‘The Maid’, Joan of Arc, returns to the West End at the Donmar Warehouse, directed by Josie Rourke and starring Gemma Arterton as the soldier who fought for what she believed in.
Simple farm girl Joan has grown up in a small town in france. She starts to receive messages from God via Saint Margaret, Saint Catherine, and the archangel Michael. Joan goes on a quest that the voices in her head have given her. She must lift the seige of Orleans and make the Dauphin the Kings of France. The Dauphin is a young and vulnerable leader who is ridiculed by everyone around him. Joan convinces him to take his men to fight the English soldiers and reclaim France as its own country. During this time, Joan is captured and put on trial for having crazy beliefs that are not in line with what the church says are true and so she is banished to death by burning on the stake. But was she really a witch like everyone proclaims or just following the acts of god?
“Must a christ perish in every age to save those who have no imagination?” These are the words displayed behind Saint Joan as she prays at the beginning of the show. Do some people have to die, simply because their beliefs are different to others. A very relevant question in 2016. The set design is simple, with little more than the use of a long table and video projection screens. The show has been cleverly directed to tell the story in an up to date fashion, whilst maintaining original dialogue and not losing the message that these are soldiers and not suited business men in an office like the costumes and set show.
At the beginning, I was fascinated and compelled by what I was watching. The clever direction and easy to follow story were captivating. But towards the end of act one, things started to drift off into another direction and became harder to follow. The second half of the show, which shows the trial of Saint Joan, should have been exciting and punchy (like a court room drama) but it was really all quite boring and I found myself willing her to just die.
Gemma Arterton plays Joan of Arc nicely. A strong, confident tomboy who doesn’t let herself be defined by her gender. She is strong willed and believes she is doing God’s work. I always imagined Joan to be more fiesty in order to get what she wants but Gemma plays her as using her looks as a power of persuasion. Hadley Fraser is good as Dunois but it is Fisayo Akinade who steals the show as the Dauphin. His camp and spoilt persona is uplifting and fun to watch and his scenes are the ones that really give this show character. There is charm and innocence in Arthur Hughes’s performance as Page/Ladvenu but the rest of the cast didn’t ignite much fire within me.
I was immensely excited about seeing this show and whilst it started off very promisingly, it all went a bit downhill before the interval and never really picked back up. Still, a fascinating story and an interesting take on how to present it that was exciting to see.
Reviewed by West End Wilma
Photo: Jack Sain
SAINT JOAN plays at the Donmar Warehouse until 18 February 2017