Olivier Theatre in the National, runs until Sept 4. Director: Marianne Elliott. Cast includes Anne-Marie Duff, Oliver Ford Davies, Paterson Joseph, Paul Ready, Christopher Colquhoun
George Bernard Shaw’s play about the life, death and subsequent canonisation of Joan of Arc will always be a difficult piece to stage. Shaw’s intention was to reveal the mechanisms of power that lie behind the making of this iconic figure of history and the Catholic church. What he is not interested in is psychological motivation and here lies the main flaw of the play: his figures are without a subconscious. They can talk very cleverly about their strategies and philosophise about the change from the feudal state to the nation state but there are no hidden currents or twisted emotions beneath it. The danger for an actor in this play is to sound like an essay on “The paradigms of power in France in the 15th century” instead of a fully rounded human being. Unfortunately this production doesn’t quite manage to stay clear of this and lacks sparkle and occasionally wit until the grandiose finale.
Director Marianne Elliot does her best to sex up the play through her direction and the stage, light and sound design. Rae Smith’s beautiful revolving set with broken trees in the background depicts the state of a nation torn to pieces by war – reminiscent of the setting of the recent Henry IV-Part 2 production in the National. Harvey Brough’s life music reminded me of Clannad and clashes in its ethereal qualities with the comedy of political manners in the first half but works very effectively in the second, more sombre part. But still, the first half of the play is strangely dull and mechanical, only enlivened by the superb Paul Ready as Charles the Dauphin who plays his character like a sulky and self-centered teenager in oversized clothes who makes the best out of Shaw’s witty dialogue. The second half is much more moving, with Oliver Ford Davies shining as the Inquisitor who makes Joan’s burning a necessity of power. There is a strong ensemble cast throughout. It is these interrogation scenes that work best as the different fractions of power clash with each other and with Joan’s convictions. The burning is grandiosely staged in both sound and light design as Joan stands on a pile of chairs forming a stake while smokes envelopes her and we hear the crackling of fire. Unfortunately Anne-Marie Duff doesn’t quite capture the nuttiness and charisma of Joan until the interrogation scene when she cracks and thinks that her voices have deceived her. Although she looks the part, we can never quite understand how she wins the hearts of the troops and converts sceptics into believers. She isn’t helped by Christopher Colquhoun as Dunois, the leader of troops and possible love-interest who stays remarkable lacklustre throughout.
This production is not one of the most brilliant moments of the National but interesting enough to see if you can stomach a dull moment or two.