Joan of Arc is so hot right now. Inappropriate pun intended.
She’s just finished on Broadway, she was on the West End not that long ago, and is rarely absent the stage for long. There’ve been 40-odd films, the most recent just last year. She’s been inhabited by some of the greats: Plowright, Redgrave, Dench, Staunton.
And what better time to bring her back from the pits of damnation? A woman of great capability who just can’t get a break. A woman with an extraordinary story that nobody around her wants to hear. A woman more familiar than ever. The Twitter hashtags apply themselves.
Not that George Bernard Shaw’s near-three-hour theatrical treatment is necessarily the feminist document for the times. Its rhythmic lyricism still sparkles, but it all too rarely lets its protagonist speak for herself. Writes director Imara Savage in the program: “I began to have the unsettling feeling that Joan was making a cameo in her own life story.”
For a moment, a long moment at the start, Savage leaves us unsettled. Her truncated collage of a play opens after Joan’s great deads, with men arguing about her motivations and her fate. Should the witch burn? They bicker and scheme about what to do with this most difficult woman. Joan is seen but not heard, a still, silent cameo in the background. Her suit of armour glints brilliantly in the light.
When the men exhaust themselves, and Joan finally removes her helmet, the shock of scarlet hair blots this monochromatic world. Joan will now take the stage in living colour, perhaps for the first time.
Sarah Snook gives a fiercely intelligent performance, calibrating vulnerability and vigour.
Shaw’s six scenes are cut out, some ripped up, others stitched together in different order. From the trial in 1431 we flash back to Joan as humble farm girl two years earlier, with saintly voices in her head calling her to the battlefields to drive the British out of France. Savage (with some additional text from Emme Hoy) has created a memory play, with Joan recalling and recreating events while in the purgatory of the dock.
While this battalion of respectable men – men of the cloth, men of justice, at a loss to explain her unearthly strength and spirit – gang around her, Joan is allowed to tell her own story. Savage’s script, in little more than 90 minutes, concentrates the drama and lazers audience focus on what is really at stake (awful pun mostly intended, again) for this woman, this girl, who won freedom for thousands but not herself. And not a word of Shaw, surely, is missed.
Sarah Snook takes up the sword with a swashbuckling power and poise as Joan. She’s a fast-rising star of small and bigger screens, but with less theatre time under the belt than the rest of the ensemble. That might have showed on opening night, where she topped the tally in speech stumbles. This will be a performance that gets better the longer the run. It’s already a fiercely intelligent one, calibrating vulnerability and vigour, beautifully guided by Savage’s clearly commanding hand in each scene.
The fraternity around her are wonderfully well-drilled, too. They share and swap roles, but more importantly act as a collective battering ram that Joan can only repel for so long. Masterly John Gaden stands out as inquisitor and archbishop, and Gareth Davies tries valiantly to steal the show as a whiny king in waiting. Brandon McClelland, Sean O’Shea, Socratis Otto, Anthony Taufa, David Whitney and William Zappa are all suitably smug and scheming.
Savage’s approach here might look sacrilegious: tearing out reams of text, culling characters, draining the stage of colour, freezing the movement. But it’s all been carefully considered and painstakingly staged. It makes the men accountable like Shaw doesn’t (he writes in his preface, remarkably, that his play has “no villains”).
The greyscale design – David Fleischer’s seamless curved curtain, costumer Renée Mulder’s smart black suits and robes, the menacing shadows created by lighting deviser Nick Schlieper – exposes Joan to her brutally patriarchal world. Composer and sound designer Max Lyandvert effectively mixes churchly organs and tinnitus-like pulsation.
The limited visuals, then, are stark and surprising. Like when Joan turns the winds in favour of her troops. Or the fiery moment of her death on the stake, which isn’t fiery at all yet just as show-stopping.
By then the men have faded away and the woman is alone with the consequences of their beliefs and prejudices. It’s an indelible moment of theatre you won’t easily forget.
Saint Joan plays the Roslyn Packer Theatre until June 30. (Photo by Brett Boardman)